A northern parula gives the photographer a curious look. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne | Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

A few months ago, I didn’t even know what Zoom was. Now I’m spending too much of my life on it. On the whole, I’d say the virtual world is not as good as the real thing.

When birders are ready to get back to the real world, we have a built-in advantage. Nature comes to us. Songbirds are returning to backyards this week, as they always have. Eastern phoebes have taken over my porch for a nest…again. Southerly breezes last Sunday night ushered in a host of new migrants. Monday morning, I woke up to the songs of black-throated green warblers and northern parulas right outside my window, where they hadn’t been the day before.

Year-round resident birds are pairing up. Black-capped chickadees are singing their “hey, sweetie” songs to entice mates and ward off rivals. Woodpeckers are drilling new holes. Nuthatches are taking over old ones. All this romantic intrigue is going on right in my own yard. Who needs Netflix?

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It’s that exciting time of year when the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon (PVC) traditionally offers a series of morning bird walks. Except, unfortunately, they won’t happen this year. Everyone agrees that the best way to enjoy the birds of 2021 is to stay healthy through 2020. While it’s hypothetically possible for members of a group to bird six feet apart from each other, in practice, participants often bunch up close to get a glimpse of a difficult bird, or crowd around a spotting scope. If 30 people joined a walk and observed social distancing rules, the last person in line would be standing 180 feet away from the leader. It’s kinda hard to hear back there.

Undaunted, PVC is offering these same walks this year in do-it-yourself fashion. A list of the species seen on each of the guided walks over the last eight years has been compiled and posted on the chapter website at pvc.maineaudubon.org. The lists include directions and links for more information.

So this may get me bounced from the Secret Society of Sorcery and Bird Guiding, but I’ll reveal an expert-level tip anyway. One way to impress Muggles with your bird identification skills is to know already which birds are likely to be there. The typical guidebook describes hundreds of species, most of which aren’t going to be found on your walk. A checklist reduces the inventory of possible birds down to something more manageable and useful.

For instance, there have been 78 species tallied over the eight years of chapter walks at Fields Pond Audubon Center. At Indian Trail Park in Brewer – one of the first walks ever offered — a mere 60 species are on the list. If you see a mystery bird in one of these two places, the list of likely candidates is small. And since you can tell the difference between a chickadee and a crow, you can cut down the list of possible identifications even further by eliminating the birds your mystery bird can’t be.

One drawback is that some of the birds on these checklists may be unusual in that location. I’ve guided the Leonard’s Mills walk in Bradley for many years. One year, we enjoyed a Cape May warbler in plain view. So it’s on the list, even though it was a one-time occurrence. Just because a bird is on the checklist doesn’t mean it’s going to be present during your visit. Conversely, you may discover a species that has never been seen in that location before. Consider the checklists to be treasure maps. You still have to find the treasure.

Indeed, there are two ways you might want to enrich a do-it-yourself guided walk. You could merely meander, enjoying whatever you find, taking pleasure in identifying birds on the list as you encounter them. Or, you can pick a bird from the list and try to find it. The first choice can be thoroughly relaxing. No pressure. The second can be energetic and educational. To find a bird, one must know a little bit about its habits and habitats. A familiarity with the song would certainly help. It might require a little – gasp – studying.

The point is this: The birds are back. They’re in their usual places. You are craving some sunshine and fresh air, away from Zoom, in places that are safely uncrowded. So choose one of the PVC-Maine Audubon walks, print off the checklist, grab your binoculars, put a hat over your now long and unkempt hair and embrace spring.

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 duchesne@midmaine.com.