Another well-crafted plan crumbles to dust. I do a number of bird talks, and this was the year I planned to add a new program to my offerings. I first put it together for an Audubon chapter two months ago. Then, one-by-one, all of my speaking events got canceled. So, I’ll give it to you instead: “Birds Beyond The Fence.”
Most of us are pretty familiar with birds in our backyards, especially those that come to a feeder. But once we’re past the end of the driveway, the bird world becomes mysterious. I’ve walked neighborhoods with friends, pointing out all the birds. They were dumbfounded. How did I hear all those birds when they didn’t hear anything?
Actually, they heard everything I did. They just didn’t notice. So the first step in taking the mystery out of birds beyond your fence is to simply notice the noise. Now’s the time of year to do it. Songbirds are on territory, starting each day with a chorus of songs to attract mates and repel rivals. You don’t have to identify any of them yet. Just notice the sounds.
The second step is to avoid getting overwhelmed. On a warm, gentle morning, a lot of birds are making noise at once. It’s more chaotic than a family Zoom meeting. “No, Mom, you’re still muted. Click that button in the lower left corner. No, not that button. What? Wait, we can’t see you…”
The third step is to pick out one bird and go find it. Try to identify it. You can bring a field guide with you or just try to remember what you saw until you get back to the house and look it up. Don’t be surprised, and don’t be worried, if you don’t remember the bird’s field marks clearly enough to find it in the book. Remember, the bird is singing on territory. It’ll still be there tomorrow.
The fourth step is where this really gets interesting. Some birds will make it easy for you. Some won’t. Every species has its own habits. Take note of where the song is coming from.
Watch: How to identify bird trills
Some birds lurk in the forest. Hermit thrushes and ovenbirds are commonly heard by anyone who lives on the edge of the woods, but they can be difficult to see.
Some birds lurk in the treetops. Pine warblers are making a lot of noise right now, but they tend to trill from high in the pines. Scarlet tanagers sing from high in the foliage and can be difficult to spot, even though they are bright red. Birds that prefer the lower limbs are much easier. Common yellowthroats, American redstarts and magnolia warblers stay closer to the ground.
Some birds move when they sing. Some stay put. It can be hard to follow the sound of a moving bird, but its movement may catch your eye. Many warblers move and sing, including black-and-white, pine, black-throated green and magnolia — all common birds. Some sit and sing. The northern waterthrush usually sings from a bare branch out in the open. But it is so stationary, it can be hard to pick out. Red-eyed vireos are notorious for just sitting in the foliage and singing relentlessly. It’s almost annoying, and it’s the bird that inspired me as a youngster to learn bird songs. I got tired of trying to figure out what it was every time I heard it.
Some birds sing quietly. Blackburnian warblers offer the double-whammy of singing a quiet song from high in the canopy. They are reasonably common and they are among our prettiest birds, but they can be tough to see.
Some birds have a lot of different vocalizations. The tufted titmouse is becoming more common throughout Maine. They don’t shy away from people, and they make a variety of noises, each one significantly different from the last. Getting familiar with the sound of this bird may involve learning four different vocalizations.
The location and singing style of all these birds near home are important clues for later. For now, don’t worry about them. Just listen for birds beyond your yard and go find one. Once you get used to how many birds are actually making noise beyond the fence, it opens up a whole new world. You can share your discoveries on your next Zoom meeting, that is, after you get done trouble-shooting. “Bobby, you’ve got an echo. Karen, why can I only get four people on my iPad?…”
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: The best birding spot in Eastern Maine