When I step outside to a chorus of birdsong, it’s just that: a chorus. For the most part, I can’t pick one feathered singer out from another. I only know a few of their tunes, such as the distinctive call of the black-capped chickadee or the haunting aria of the hermit thrush. When it comes to birding by ear, I’m still very much a novice.
By sight? I’m much better at that.
So when Bangor Daily News columnist and bird expert Bob Duchesne offered to go on a walk with me to look — and more importantly, listen — for birds this spring, I jumped at the opportunity. There’s no better way to learn about wildlife than going out with someone who has more experience than you.
By the time I joined Bob at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden on May 20, he’d already formulated a game plan. All he’d had to do was stand in the parking lot and listen to the wild chorus for a few minutes and he knew where several birds could be found.
Following a woodland trail, we started out by seeking a scarlet tanager, also known as “the flame of spring.” In no time, we found the small songbird flitting about, high in the trees. Its brilliant red feathers glowed in the sun. I’d never seen one before, and to me, it looked tropical, its plumage almost neon.
Scarlet tanagers are fairly common in Maine during the spring and summer, Bob said. But they often go overlooked because they spend so much of their time in the canopy. Nothing really stood out to me about the bird’s song, which was sort of a hurried chirping. Bob said that many birders refer to it as “a robin with a sore throat.”
Nearby, an ovenbird beckoned with its “tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher” song — one that I find much easier to remember and recognize. Perching on a low-lying branch, the bird tilted its head back as it sang. Its white chest, marked with bold dark spots, was on full display. The sun filtered through the trees, lighting up its rusty orange cap.
Bob continued to follow birdsong around the preserve, which covers 191 acres and features a network of easy to moderate hiking trails. At least 130 bird species have been documented on the property, where bird nesting boxes stand in fields and along the shore of Fields Pond.
In just a couple of hours — from 7 to 9 a.m. (after which many of the birds quiet down, according to Bob) — we saw all sorts of species. Perched high in a tree at the edge of a field, a red-breasted grosbeak sang a whistling tune that’s often described as “sweeter than a robin’s” (apparently birders like to compare things to robins). In the field nearby, we watched two bluebirds feed their babies in one of the nesting boxes, and I spied a tree swallow darting out of another.
We heard and saw blue jays, song sparrows, catbirds, swamp sparrows, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-eyed vireos and black-throated green warblers. A barred owl hooted deep in the woods, and a red-shouldered hawk soared high overhead. I don’t think I would have noticed half of those birds without Bob pointing them out.
Sadly I can’t always go birding with Bob. He has things to do, after all.
So I’ve been looking up the songs of various birds (usually on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website) and I’ve been trying to remember some of them. I’ve also downloaded the free mobile app BirdNET, which analyzes audio and guesses what bird you’re hearing. Often it’s right, and sometimes it’s wrong or simply doesn’t know.
Since my dog, Juno, has a pretty open schedule, I’ve started teaching her about birding and wildlife photography. And by that I mean that she’s learning how to wait patiently, on leash, while I search the trees with my camera.
As an experiment, Juno and I visited Essex Woods in Bangor the other day to photograph wildlife, and she did surprisingly well for a 7-month-old puppy. I think walking slowly and waiting around is easy for her because she enjoys sniffing around so much — and chewing on sticks.
She’s also fascinated by insects.
While walking the trail around the wetland area of the property in the early afternoon (admittedly not the best time for wildlife watching), I spotted nesting red-winged blackbirds, common yellowthroats, Canada geese, napping mallards, song sparrows, a muskrat and a Baltimore oriole. And thanks to an experienced birder we met along the way, we also observed an eastern kingbird and stopped to listen to the high-pitched call of the Virginia rail, one of the more elusive wetland birds.
Those two recent outings drove home for me the idea that you often hear more, see more and learn more if watching wildlife with another person — even if it’s just a fellow nature enthusiast whom you happen to meet and chat with for a few minutes. So while I enjoy exploring the wilderness solo, I think I’ll team up with people more often, perhaps join some group nature walks. Learning out in the field with another person is a lot more fun than reading about it in a book or online.
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.