March and early April birding in Maine is such a tease. The first new arrivals – Turkey Vultures, Common Grackles, and Red-winged Blackbirds – begin arriving in late February, and waterfowl are on the move shortly thereafter. In a mild spring such as this, the diving ducks that have graced our open waters all winter rapidly begin to disperse – no more big flocks of goldeneyes to sort through for a Barrow’s anymore, for example. And while dabbling duck migration is in full swing, the near-total lack of ice already has limited concentrations and kept the birds on the move. So we are left anxiously awaiting the arrival of new migrants – raptors first, and then the “new arrivals” under the feeders in the backyard.
But when it feels like floodgates are about to open any day now, we get a snowstorm or a requisite cold snap. Or just a few days with a persistent north wind to impede progress. And then we realize it is still March, and the floodgates won’t open for several more weeks or even a month. Even when we turn the page to April, it takes a while to really get going – especially if we have a large area of low pressure stock spinning offshore as we do at the moment.
And then we get a pandemic.
After weeks of limiting our travel, social/physical distancing, park closures, and other methods, we have failed to stem the exponential growth of the illness, those who it is affecting, and very sadly, those who are dying from it. This is no joke, and impacts on our birding are really the least of our concerns. But we’re birders, and we simply have to look at birds for our well-being. Birding walks, backyard bird feeding, and outings to look for a recent rarity are all part of our mental health, and necessary physical activity. And numerous studies have shown the mental and physical health benefits of birding, or many other forms of being immersed in nature. And mental and physical health – including our immune systems – are intrinsically connected.
But our birding needs to change, and it needs to change now. No matter what our reasons, excuses, apathies, and/or concerns are, Maine is now under a “Stay at Home” mandate from the Governor. We still can – and should – recreate to the best of our ability, but we have to do it wisely and safely.
Especially as I take still-fairly-quiet walks in the local woods with the dog or an afternoon stroll down my road, waiting for the next wave of migrants to show up, I have been thinking a lot about what that the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic means for birds and birding. And not the obvious, such as some birders we know could get sick or that physical distancing means no birding groups and tours, but more subtle differences. Really, this is nothing more than a thought exercise; something to think about and discuss to pass the time. And nothing here should suggest I am downplaying the threat of this disease, but instead, just occupying some of the brain time in between. Besides, we’re birders. We find a bright side to everything from massive devastating hurricanes (vagrant seabirds) to climate change (new expanded breeding ranges)…it’s what we do; our optimism is what keeps us going.
• BIRDING HOTSPOTS and NEW PATCHES.
Many birding hotspots are now closed or too crowded to be safely enjoyed by smart people. Stay-at-home orders are now state-wide in Maine, and many more of us are just trying to be as safe as possible. In other words, the birders’ wings have been clipped.
I squeezed in a visit to Scarborough Marsh on Tuesday morning, with the 2020 Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch Official Counter, hours before the stay at home order was announced rather unexpectedly. I’m glad Luke got a chance to see this wonderful place, and we had a pretty good few hours of birding. A total of 26 Gadwall between three different locations was probably an all-time state high count for me, and we enjoyed our first of year Great Egrets (4) and Greater Yellowlegs (1) as well. Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, and other dabbling ducks were in relative short supply as they are already moving inland and to points north, but we enjoyed good diversity.
But now Scarborough Marsh is too far from my home for me to comfortably visit. On Wednesday morning, I hit Wharton Point on the early morning outgoing tide and was thrilled to find a Eurasian Green-winged Teal x American Green-winged Teal hybrid, as well as my first 3 Northern Shovelers of the year. And there were a lot of ducks at Simpson’s Point to.
But, for me, I cannot justify heading out to stand still (no exercise, although if it’s as raw and cold as this morning, I would be burning plenty of calories!). Perhaps a seed delivery run (more on that below) will take me past at the right time in the tide for a quick check.
In other words, like you, I am losing my hotspots. So what’s next? Will birders just bird less? There’s a reason that these are hotspots – they have proven over the years that they are some of the best places to go birding. Or, will we – like I tend to find myself doing anyway! – simply shift to under-visited areas? While I usually prefer to bird off the beaten path, now there is no other choice. Personally, I had been allowing myself one or two mornings a week to go slightly further afield, but for the most part, I have been sticking within a 15 minute radius of my home: dog walks, feeder-watching, local patches, and especially the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch. With the new state-wide order in effect, my birding radius – like yours – will be reduced much, much further. Luckily, us birders – whether limited to a small yard, an outdoor deck, or access to miles of trails, can still indulge in our beloved pastime, at least in some way. But rarities and the unexpected are a large part of what drives many of us.
So what is a birder to do? Do you keep a “Patch List” – a list of all the species seen or heard from your local park, woodlot, neighborhood, etc. Now might be the perfect time to start one (as I wrote about in my first book, How to Be a Better Birder). If you can walk to it, even better! Keep in mind that the less we move about, the less likely we are to spread the virus, or use services – such as emergency services should we have an accident, for a brutal – but ever so real – example – that are already strained right now. And save money on gas and vehicle wear-and-tear – and emit less carbon.
Will that new land trust property down the road turn out to be a new birding hotspot? If it does, will you tell anyone? And I don’t mean this facetiously, especially as many (but certainly not all) birders are always looking to be socially distant when they’re out birding. My Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide includes locations throughout the state, and not just conventional hotspots. Perhaps its time to check out a new site in the book? Or, grab a map and figure out some interesting bird-concentrating geography to explore. Or, pull out Google Maps, put on the satellite mode, and identify a wetland nearby that might end up having something you don’t see every day.
The benefit of a Patch List is that every bird – no matter how common overall – counts. Depending on the habitat, even overall abundant migrants might become patch mega-rarities! Like when a puddle becomes large enough to host a migrant yellowlegs, or when a harrier is spotted as it passes over a forested area. The thrill of discovery is just around the corner, and is likely all yours!
Early April isn’t a great time for rare birds in Maine, usually with the exception of waterfowl. But if people aren’t getting out to traditional hotspots will rarities be found? And what will happen if a “Mega” is discovered? Will we forget the rules and race out for it, standing in large, anxious groups discussing and reveling? Or – especially if the bird is in an area that can’t handle crowds – will it be shared at all? Should it be?
As April rolls on, and migration continues in earnest, we usually get a wave of rarities near the end of the month. Especially after a warm spell of southwesterly winds, southern “overshoots” sometimes occur in good numbers. These species flew just a little bit too far north, as their airspeed was aided by strong tailwinds. This deposits species like Summer Tanagers, Hooded Warblers, and Blue Grosbeaks much further north than usual. With food supplies still limited in these parts, some of these – especially Summer Tanagers – show up at feeding stations.
If rarities and listing are a primary driver, there’s no way around it, the next month (at least) is going to be a real challenge. While we have to make many of our own decisions, we simply have to put more and more of our desires aside for the greater good. While I like a good “twitch” now and again, I’m even happier watching for new yard birds or working on a local patch list while walking the dog. And, of course, there is Bonxie’s Life List to work on!
Speaking of rarities at feeding stations, the backyard is really the place to be. And a lot of us are enjoying watching the feeders right now, safe at home and getting fresh air in the backyard. Our store remains open – with free local delivery and curbside pickup greatly encouraged – and we’ve made it easier than ever to order a much wider range of products online. If our store is one sample, then people are turning to backyard birdwatching as an import source of entertainment and the mental health benefits of watching birds and being in nature are very well established. This is definitely how I am doing much of my birding right now – although I have been making lots of stops at ponds, wet fields, etc, as I go about our seed delivery runs!
But what’s going to happen if a Painted Bunting shows up at a feeder? What if it’s not visible from the road? What if we’re worried about the crowds that might show up? Will it be shared? I definitely don’t think people should be opening their house to birders right now for views out the window, that’s for sure! With more people looking at their feeders – home for work and birding from the window – all day, I bet more unusual birds will be noted (as long as we get the weather patterns that produce rarities), but will the community as a whole find out? Should “yard birds” be posted and publicized right now? This is likely an individual decision, but one in which the desire to share is greatly overshadowed by the need to stay safe. But at least document the rarity and we’ll figure out all the records later. I’d just be very careful right now about posting specific locations that people can find in eBird or on Facebook, especially without the background knowledge of how to behave at that site (e.g stay in the car and view from the road only) being very evident.
Especially with our wonderful new garden at the store, we have been anxiously expecting its first vagrant. Of course, it will happen when the store is basically closed and the only reasonable way to view our feeders without flushing the birds is from inside; figures!
We had 22 species at the feeders here at the store this week, and while our feeders are not quite as diverse at home at the moment, we still have plenty of Dark-eyed Juncos and tons of American Goldfinches. Many more individuals of our common woodland species are augmented by a regular Pileated Woodpecker pair and increasing numbers of Purple Finches right now. We’ll soon have a wave of White-throated Sparrows and the first Chipping Sparrows munching away on the White Proso Millet, and Pine Warblers are starting to show up at feeding stations – the most common (by far) warbler to show up at feeders and the only “yellow warbler” to appear before the end of the month when Palm Warblers start to arrive (which almost never visit feeders).
• APPRECIATE THE COMMON!
On our currently-suspended Saturday Morning Birdwalks, we have “The Cardinal Rule:” If there is a male cardinal singing in the sun, we all have to stop to look at it through the scope. It’s a reminder to appreciate the most common birds around us, which in many cases are some of the most beautiful. There are few places in the world where the most stunning birds – think cardinals, Blue Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds, etc – are common feeder visitors; no distant travel or long searches required!
Seriously, when was the last time you REALLY looked at a Blue Jay? Watch how the light plays with a pallet of colors as a Common Grackle moves – this is not just a black bird! Check for newly arrived migrant sparrows under your feeders, and step into the backyard to hear the growing chorus of spring birdsong. There is so much beauty around us, right outside our windows. We firmly believe in the mental health benefits of maintaining our connection with the nature world, especially birds, in this time of stress and uncertainty. There is nothing better to do right now for your health and safety than enjoying watching the beauty of birds at our feeders and in our yards.
Personally, on some of my walks recently, I can’t help but smile every time I hear a Brown Creeper sing, and the ethereal and brilliant song of Winter Wrens – which are just now arriving – can bring joy to any day. Pileated Woodpeckers are vocal and conspicuous, and if you live in the boreal zone, now’s a great time to look for Spruce Grouse and Canada Jays! And I was very excited to finally see my first Fox Sparrow of the year under our feeders at home this morning – a Fox Sparrow can brighten any day, even one like today!
On a completely different note, yes, I was thinking about roadkill when walking the dog the other day. And no, it was not because Bonxie tried to eat some, it was only because a small group of Turkey Vultures were passing overhead. So it got me thinking about how the greatly reduced amount of traffic on the roads will reduce the number of small animals and migrant birds hit by cars. Squirrels battling over territories, porcupines being porcupines, and flocks of migrant sparrows flushing in panic from the roadsides will all likely see reduced mortality. But what does this mean for scavengers? How will Turkey Vultures, still marching northward with a warming climate, find food if the interstates are clear? Will crows spend less time scavenging and more time looking for nests to raid? It seems odd, I know, to think about roadkill as a good thing, but it does now fill a niche, so it’s part of the equation.
I will say, for certainty, however, that if the amphibian migration “big night” occurs while we’re still under stay-at-home advisements or orders, then a whole more frogs and salamanders will make it to their vernal pools to breed. Thursday (4/2) might just end up being a “Big Night,”when a mass migration of amphibians (especially Spotted Salamanders, Wood Frogs, and Spring Peepers) takes place – at least in the southern third of the state. Regardless, on any wet night for the next few weeks, skip the take-out run and leave the car in the driveway. Instead, take a walk with a good flashlight and patrol your local roads for crossing frogs and salamanders as they move from the uplands they spend the winter in to the vernal pools and small ponds they breed in. As long as you don’t have insect repellent or any other products on your hands (or just wear gloves), you can pick them up and carry them to the other side. Just be sure you know which way they were heading before you got to close, so you don’t make them start this deadly part of the trip over.
• BACKYARD HABITAT. As a tie-in to the discussion about bird feeding, this spring is a perfect time to improve the habitat for birds in our backyard. If only to be self-serving by having more birds to enjoy around us, we can improve our habitat with many small steps or larger overhaul projects. Lawns suck, and native plants are always better. Maybe place an order with FedCo or call your local nursey or garcen center for some wildflower seeds for birds and pollinators and convert a few square yards at a time to something more productive than a chemically-laden monoculture? Starting seeds indoors is a great way to be productive right now. Or perhaps get to work on removing invasive species and planting more native plants that offer food and shelter to our native birds and insects. Perhaps our garden projects will yield more birds for us to enjoy the next time we’re stuck in the house for a prolonged period of time? Or better yet, if enough of us convert our yards to wildlife sanctuaries, perhaps we can even stem the decline of some bird populations!
We do, however, have to keep in mind that if we are attracting more birds to our yard, we are bringing them closer to two serious threats – cats and windows. If you still refuse the science and allow your cat to roam free outdoors despite their devastating ecological impact, then please ignore this. At least 3.8Billion birds a year are killed by cats in the US alone. We don’t have that many birds to spare anymore. (But hey, now’s the perfect time to build that “catio” of your feline’s dreams! Seriously). And we really need to work on this window collision issue – that’s as many as another Billion or so birds. We need to rethink window design and construction, but for now, at least leave your screens up and use consumer products especially BirdTape and Feather Friendly (both available here at the store)
These are a few of my recent thoughts and ideas. What do you think? Any potential costs or benefits to birds and birding come to mind for you? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.