Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone. Heavy, wet snow followed by 60 mph winds knocked out power for half a week. After four days without a shower, people were staying a lot more than six feet away from me.
The heavy winds blew from the south, the kind of overnight tailwind that brings in a fresh crop of migrant birds in April. I wondered what kind of birds would welcome flying in such a gale Monday night. My question was answered at daybreak, when I stepped onto the porch and heard my first ruby-crowned kinglet of the year. It’s a tiny bird, about the size of your thumb. Was it an exhilarating ride in that wind? Perhaps he spent the whole night going “wheeeee!”
The kinglet was right on time. This is the week that many of our early migrants arrive. Besides the kinglet, I heard an increase in the number of yellow-bellied sapsuckers Tuesday morning, as well as my first singing hermit thrush of the year.
For the next month, every time overnight winds are calm or from the south, expect more songbirds to drop out of the sky in the morning. This week, we should see our first warblers returning: pine, palm and yellow-rumped warblers. Blue-headed vireos should start popping up, too.
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Mornings are already alive with bird songs. They’re so loud, I can hear them over all the neighbors’ emergency generators. This is a fine time to learn a few songs yourself.
Now don’t tell me you can’t do this birding-by-ear thing. You already know more than you think you do. How many of these can you recognize? Crow, loon, blue jay, chickadee, mourning dove, Canada goose, red-winged blackbird, mallard, turkey, robin. Anyone with an eastern phoebe nesting on the porch knows their harsh “FEE-bee!” calls. Anyone with a northern cardinal in the bushes knows the sound of its piercing whistles. Your neighborhood tufted titmouse has surely been noisy lately.
Watch: How to identify the songs of 5 common Maine birds
Other backyard birds have been mouthing off a lot. White-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches are household birds for many of us. The former like deciduous trees, the latter prefer conifers. You’ve likely got one around the house, maybe both. American goldfinches have been singing up a storm, too.
If there is one avian tune to learn immediately, it’s the song sparrow. The bird lives up to its name. It’s one of the most common and widespread birds in the state, and it sings a lot. It’s particularly noisy right now because the males are actively wooing mates. I’m hearing two and three at a time, dueling over territories.
The song sparrow is cooperative in other ways. It’s a bird of low shrubs and bushes, usually found at eye level or lower. It is apt to feed in the open and is perfectly comfortable in city neighborhoods. Song sparrows are easy to see, and it’s fun to watch them sing. The song is a bit long and complex, though. It’s been described as sounding like: “Maids maids-maids-put-on-your tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” or “Hip, hip, hip hurrah boys, spring is here!” or
“Madge, Madge, Madge pick beetles off, the water’s hot.”
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Frankly, I don’t like any of those descriptions, but I haven’t come up with one better. I’ve never had to because usually it’s easy enough to see them sing, and there’s no other song like it.
For this and other songs, you can look up birds online. I recommend allaboutbirds.org, a website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can look up any bird in North America, and listen to its song. The lab also offers a free smartphone app called Merlin, which can be downloaded from the same website.
Of course, you can’t look up a bird to hear its song if you don’t know what the bird is. There are apps on the market that promise to identify bird songs in the wild. I’ve tested a few, but I haven’t yet discovered one that I thought was sufficiently accurate. Until that day comes, there’s only one substitute for having all the bird songs identified for you, and that’s to bring me along. Ah, but then there’s that whole no-power, no-shower, stay-away-from-me problem.
So: you’ve got homework. Learn one bird by next week, just one bird – the song sparrow. They’re everywhere in Maine, they’re visible, and they’re singing. I’ll check back with you next week to see how you’ve done. If you’re ready for Level Two, you’ll meet the four species that are singing trills right now.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch: When the weather warms, these Maine ducks start to “swipe right”