I know this may seem crazy, but I can hear what a forest looks like. I see with my ears.
There are nearly 300 breeding birds in Maine, and they’re all about to have sex. That means the woods are about to get loud with song, as the birds go about the business of attracting mates and defending territories. These 300 birds do not settle down randomly. Each one has a specific habitat preference. Once they’re done moving around during migration, you can safely assume that if you hear a bird on territory, the territory contains the habitat the bird prefers.
Habitat is one of the clues that experts use to quickly identify a bird. You’ll find woodland birds in woodlands, marsh birds in marshes and pigeons on statues of Civil War generals. Such habitats can be further subdivided. Some warblers prefer deciduous trees, some prefer conifers. Some warblers prefer to be ground level, some at mid-level and some near treetops.
When you hear a bird, you can make a reasonable guess at what its surrounding habitat looks like. If you hear a bunch of birds, you can piece together the whole puzzle. I’ve had a lot of practice lately.
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Maine Audubon is doing a project for several landowners and land trusts. They place recording equipment on a parcel, and tape the spring chorus of songbirds. Later, experts listen to the recordings and note what songs they hear during the first two hours of daylight. I’ve analyzed three recordings so far this winter.
At first, I was merely happy to sit in front of a winter fire while listening to spring arrive, albeit the previous spring. Then it slowly dawned on me. Without consciously thinking about it, my brain was picturing what the land looked like. I had no idea where these recordings were made, nor any photos of the sites, but when I sent in my first report in January, I included notes on what I thought my ears could see:
“Sounds like a mixed, majority hardwood forest, with enough balsam or hemlock to host red squirrels and red-breasted nuthatches. Some damp areas, which the veeries like. Good enough understory to please the ovenbirds. Not tall enough (maples and oaks) to have wood thrushes, blackburnian warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks or scarlet tanagers. More likely beech and birch, which the black-throated blue warbler prefers. Not much pine, given the lack of pine warblers. No shrubs or forest edge nearby, due to the lack of song sparrows, common yellowthroats, yellow warblers or American redstarts. Likely southern Maine, due to the lack of white-throated sparrows, or more northern warblers, like Nashville.”
It turns out, the recording was made at Woodbury Nature Sanctuary in Litchfield. And the official site description reads: “Intermediate aged hardwood stand with softwoods mixed in and fir coming up. 50-60’ mixed wood stand with red oak, sugar maple and pine overstory. Beech, maple and balsam fir midstory. Fir, witch hazel and beech understory. Adjacent to patch of birch.”
Nailed it. Mostly. The recording was made at the tail end of singing season, and some birds I might have used as clues had likely gone silent. I’m talking about you, Mr. Pine Warbler.
My next recording came from the beginning of breeding season. It was much louder, with 36 species audible. A black-throated blue warbler sang continuously, leading me to picture a forest of beech and birch. It was near a pond large enough to please Canada geese, but the microphone was at the shallow marshy end, because I could hear an American bittern, a green heron and a northern waterthrush. A singing pine warbler confirmed the presence of pines. A calling red-bellied woodpecker suggested it was in southern Maine. A whip-poor-will singing at dawn meant there were open edges nearby. Turkeys gobbled, so the woods were not very thick.
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That recording was made at Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson. When Audubon sent me photos of the site, I was truly spooked. It looked exactly as I had pictured it.
The moral of the story is this: Your yard, your neighborhood, up-ta-camp — each one has its own unique sound. In about three weeks, my own yard will start telling me that I have tall pines (pine warblers), mature trees (black-throated green warblers, northern parula, red-eyed vireos), mixed hardwood and softwood (both white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, plus blue-headed vireos), plenty of woodpecker cavities (great-crested flycatcher) and lots of open edges (chipping sparrows). What will your yard tell you?
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.