I used to be oblivious. To me, birds arrived in the spring and left in the fall. During the time in between, they were just here, hanging around, waiting for my casual identification.
Then I started guiding. Everything is different when you absolutely have to find a bird. I came to dread July, a month of doldrums. In spring, it’s easy. Birds are singing. They’re establishing territories and seeking mates. They’re argumentative. By July, they’re mostly quiet. If they have kids, they avoid attention. If they don’t have kids, they just don’t care. The woods are full of birds whose only purpose in life is to ignore you.
Belatedly, I’ve been dragged into a better understanding of how the woods change weekly. We’re in that period now when birds are singing less, but talking more.
I’ve been getting scolded a lot lately. I’ve been walking logging roads in the North Maine Woods, volunteering on a survey for the Maine Bird Atlas, a project under the auspices of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. I’m impressed by two birds who know you’re coming. Common yellowthroats and white-throated sparrows raise the alarm while you’re still farther away than Tom Brady can throw a football. The old Tom Brady, I mean. Not the weaker-armed Tom Brady of recent days. (Bitter? Me?)
This alarm raising is useful. I don’t have to see babies to know they are there. The parents wouldn’t be so concerned if they didn’t have the next generation to protect. In fact, I have come to notice a whole range of bird behaviors, based on how old the chicks are.
Before their eggs are laid, warblers and sparrows are alert to your presence but relatively unperturbed. Once the eggs are in the nest, the male may scold your approach, but the female remains secluded. Once the kids are hatched and hungry, both parents may scold your approach. They get even more vociferous once their fledglings are flitting around the area.
And it’s not just people they scold. As much as bird parents dislike dim-witted, slow-footed me, they absolutely abhor true threats, like jays. Small birds know that bigger birds can eat their offspring. They object to the presence of ravens, crows and jays. They raise an alarm. I may be dim-witted, but I recognize that alarm and understand what’s going on up there when I hear it.
Take red-eyed vireos. They sing often. But if they wish to communicate anything else — whether affection or rejection — they utter a distinctive “zhreee” sound. The more zhrees, the more excited they are. It’s a surprisingly common sound. Nowadays, if I hear it, I suspect there are blue jays foraging through the canopy, and the vireos are annoyed.
As much as songbirds dislike blue jays, they thoroughly despise Canada jays. Ruby-crowned kinglets go absolutely bonkers when one is near. They will sit on a nearby branch, scolding boldly. Likewise, woodpeckers hate owls. They will raise the alarm if one is near.
There’s a lot of baby noise in July. Take black-throated green warblers. They’re abundant in Maine, and sing relentlessly through June. Then comes July. The males no longer worry about rivals, and sing just enough to tell other warblers to stay out of their space. Meanwhile, you can hear a stream of barely audible “chit-chits” coming from the forest canopy. Yup, that’s black-throated green warblers chit-chatting with each other. Babies are demanding to be fed, and parents are obliging. I only hear this for about three weeks of summer, and it’s happening now.
Other warblers make similar sounds, and I’ve noticed that each species is on a different timetable. Black-and-white warblers and Nashville warblers finish early. They’re now completely ignoring me. Yellow-rumped and magnolia warblers are about a week behind them. Canada warblers are two weeks behind and are just now feeding hatchlings.
Flycatchers have dissimilar timetables. I heard my last great-crested flycatcher three weeks ago, my last alder flycatcher two weeks ago and my final eastern wood-pewee last week. Least flycatchers finish this week. Olive-sided flycatchers vocalize into August.
Some birds follow a completely different timetable, especially those that raise multiple broods. No sooner had the eastern phoebes on my porch fledged their first four babies than they started a second batch. Those are now about ready to fly. Winter wrens have resumed singing, starting another brood. Golden-crowned kinglets are crooning love songs again.
July used to be boring. But nature is a theater, and we all have a front row seat.
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.