It has been 10 years today since I started writing the “Good Birding” column for the Bangor Daily News. I wish I could say that every column is carefully planned, but who would I be kidding?
In hindsight, it’s painfully obvious that my topics are driven by the seasons. In spring, it’s all about the returning migrants. Sometime in early May, there will be a column about identifying bird songs. I’ll likely inform readers about spring bird walks, festivals and puffin trips.
By July, birds have mostly stopped singing. They’re laser-focused on raising the kids. Watching their behavior provides endless inspiration for columns. In August, seabirds in the Gulf of Maine and shorebirds on the mudflats demand attention.
September brings the hawks through, and most of the songbirds depart. All this avian wandering inevitably brings a few rare birds worth writing about. As local birds prepare for winter, feeders get more active, inspiring more columns.
I’m fascinated by the great diversity of birds and habitats in Maine. I could write about it endlessly. And you would be bored. I should have seen this coming. Although there are hundreds of interesting birds in Maine, it’s the ones in our own backyards that fascinate people the most. I travel all over the state, but the best columns happen when I stay home.
Thanks to COVID, I’ve stayed home more than usual recently. Spending more time with my own backyard birds was the unanticipated benefit of an otherwise gruesome pandemic. I noticed things I hadn’t recognized before, and wrote about them.
As a casual feeder-watcher, I’d see birds come and go, but never paid much attention. Slowly, I began to notice patterns in how birds use my yard. Each species had its own strategy, which governed when they came in, how they came in, and how long they stayed. Some wanted the company of other birds, increasing vigilance for predators. Some didn’t care.
The little twerps have a system, and I inserted myself into it. If I moved around in my backyard in a predictable, non-threatening way, I became no more intimidating than patio furniture. Sometimes, we’d even talk to each other. I wrote about it.
Nature herself has a system. Weekly deadlines focus attention on the subtle changes that occur during each of the 52 weeks a year, in a way that might have otherwise escaped my notice.
I was aware that migrant birds returned in the spring, but now I was conscious of which week, and even which day. I was aware that bird visitation to feeders was uneven throughout the year, depending on the supply of natural food and where they were in the breeding cycle. Now I notice these changes week to week.
This column has forced me to witness climate change in real time. As Maine has gotten warmer, I’ve noticed southern birds moving north, and northern birds disappearing.
When I started this column, Carolina wrens were almost unheard of in eastern Maine. This summer, I encountered a Carolina wren singing in Lubec!
Cardinals, tufted titmice and red-bellied woodpeckers continue their relentless march north. Eastern screech-owls have moved into southern Maine.
If I take better care of myself, I expect to live long enough to observe southern birds like black vultures and Mississippi kites breeding on this side of the New Hampshire border. Meanwhile, boreal chickadees are among the fastest vanishing birds in the state.
In just 10 years, I’ve watched these brown-capped chickadees disappear all along the Down East coast, and their numbers are plummeting in the north Maine woods. In the past three years, I’ve watched the Gulf of Maine change. Atlantic puffins are struggling. Seabirds that visit Maine’s nutrient-rich waters from all parts of the globe have declined. Even some of the whales have moved farther offshore.
You may not realize it, but I get most of my inspiration from you. My email address is listed at the bottom of every column. Readers send photos and audio recordings in hopes that I can identify them. When a weird season affects the birds coming to everyone’s feeders, I hear about it. When someone spots an odd bird or a discolored bird, I hear about it. Questions from readers can inspire a whole column.
I lead walks and give talks. I spend time with people of all skill levels, and see firsthand the challenges that inexperienced birders face. I’m on a mission to demystify bird identification by sight, sound and even behavior. I may write the column, but you’re on this team, too.