Tag Archives: Pine Warbler

Birding a Pandemic: The “well, we might as well go birding, kinda” Perspective.

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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!

• RARITIES.
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.
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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!

• FEEDERS.
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).
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• 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!
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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!
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• ROADKILL.
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.

Why There are so Many Warblers at Feeders in Maine Right Now (5/3/19).

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On another damp and dreary morning at Florida Lake Park in Freeport on Thursday, I encountered 25-30 Yellow-rumped Warblers and 15 or so Palm Warblers. That was my best total of the season there so far, but in the last week of April through first week of May, I often see tallies of each into the triple digits.

On Friday it was drier, but still cool and raw at Morgan Meadow WMA. I finally hit 5 species of warblers on a morning with my first-of-year (finally) Black-and-white Warbler.  About 20-25 Yellow-rumped and about 15 Palm Warblers were present. For perspective, on 5/3 last year, I hit 10 species of warblers at Florida Lake.

These are two of my favorite mid-spring migration patches, and in most years, I am at Florida Lake Park nearly every day. But this “spring”, it has been lackluster at best; worthless at worst. There just aren’t many birds around.

But it is definitely the spring for warblers at feeders!  After our Facebook post on Wednesday garnered lots of attention and feedback, I thought I would expand a little, as clearly this is a very unusual – perhaps even unprecedented – event.

While Pine Warblers are regular at feeders, especially in early spring – and quite a few of us see some Yellow-rumped Warblers at feeders every year – we cannot recall a spring in which so many people are reporting so many of each at feeders throughout southern Maine.  In fact, many folks are reporting Yellow-rumped Warblers at their feeders for the “first time ever.”  Even more unusual, we’ve had reports of Palm Warblers at feeders, too – something that is almost never seen.
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Pine Warbler is our only regular, wide-spread “feeder warbler” in most seasons

At home in Pownal, we’re up to 20 Yellow-rumped (and our usual pair of Pines), with as many as 8 Yellow-rumps frequenting the feeders at the store this week. We see them annually on our feeders at home, especially on damp and cold mornings, but this year the flock has been slowly but steadily building and has been consistently present for almost 3 weeks. In both locales, a diversity of food is being consumed by this normally-insectivorous (at least in spring and summer) species. In rough order of popularity, they are eating: live mealworms, dried mealworms, insect suet, Nutsie and Mr. Bird nut blocks (especially the Bugs, Nuts,&Fruit block), peanut splits, Birdberry jelly, and even some seed. While a little hulled sunflower isn’t surprising, at home, we even have them gobbling up white proso millet from our tray feeder!
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In fact, until Thursday, I’ve had more Yellow-rumps at our feeders than on any morning at Florida Lake Park! And this is instructive.

Midges are not yet emerging from the pond there, and even through some Red Maples are finally blooming, insect activity has been minimal or even non-existent at this important early-flowering tree. The phenology (to put it simply, the timing of things in nature over the course of the year) is off –way off – this spring. Food resources are not keeping up with the calendar.
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The jet stream is stuck to our south, resulting in unseasonable cool and very unsettled weather, with a steady progression of storm systems and disturbances crossing our area. This pattern is impeding the progress of our spring, and of migrants arriving from the south (I have yet to even see a Black-and-white Warbler this year, for example!). But the cool and wet weather is resulting in natural food sources being well behind schedule, so the birds that are here – on time in many cases – are searching for alternative food sources. And therefore: warblers at feeders.
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This diagram of the jet stream from 4/30 shows the tight gradient and zonal flow that has been dominating our weather pattern and is preventing the arrival of warm temperatures and “spring.”

Or, as better explained by the National Weather Service office in Gray:

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Meanwhile, cherries, apples, crabapples, Serviceberry, and other important early-season flowering trees aren’t even close to blooming. Nectar, pollen, and even the petals and new buds are consumed, but more importantly for most of our migrants, those flowers attract insects that are then eaten by birds. The forecast is for some better conditions for migration in the coming days, and that will start to deliver us newly returning migrants, but those birds will also have fewer food sources than normal.

In seasons like this, the supplemental food from well-stocked feeding stations becomes more important than usual. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are already being reported; what would those birds do without a nectar feeder (no red dye!!!!) right now? And of course, who knows what kind of condition all of these hungry Yellow-rumped Warblers would be in right now without feeders.
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Soon, other migrants such as orioles, tanagers, catbirds, and a wide array of warblers (or Neotropical migrants) will be arriving, and they need food after their long journeys. Especially until spring catches up (those long-distance migrants have no idea how delayed our season is up here), feeders will continue to be important for migrants – and unexpectedly productive birding hotspots.
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There are a lot of hungry birds out there right now, and without a doubt, many of us will get to enjoy species we don’t usually get to see, or at least no so closely. So put your jacket on, come by the store for some high-quality foodstuffs (our insect suet is flying off the shelves right now!) and keep that feeding station well-stocked.  Our migrants thank you.
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A Warbler (and Sparrow) Big Month. In December. In Maine.

December was unusually warm. In fact, it was record warm. And not just barely… records were shattered. The average temperature for the month was 38F. Not only was that a ridiculous 9 degrees above normal, it smashed the previous record of 24.8F (set in 2001). Surprisingly, despite the everlasting warmth, record daily highs were rare. Christmas Day was an exception, however, when temperatures soared to 62 in Portland, crushing the previous record high of 53, set just last year.

Our first measurable snow of the season didn’t fall until December 29th – the second latest date on record. Those 5-8 inches in southern Maine finally ushered in “real winter” and hopefully set the stage for a return to more normal conditions (although the last few days have once again been 5-10 degrees above normal).

Not surprisingly, such an unseasonable month resulted in some very-unseasonable birding. A variety of “lingering” or perhaps more accurately “pioneering” as Ned Brinkley, editor of North American Birds once dubbed it warblers in particular were making headlines.

So I decided to do a December Warbler Big Month. Because, well, warblers in December! In Maine!

With Tennessee, Yellow (2!), Nashville (2!), Common Yellowthroat, and Wilson’s on December 6th, I was half-way to my newly-set goal of 10 species for the month. The unusually mild fall has allowed more “lingering” birds to survive longer, and normal November hotspots are still hot (literally and figuratively).

Unfortunately, I waited until December 8th to decide to embark on this silly little hunt, so I had some catching up to do. There were some relatively easy ones (Yellow-rumped Warblers overwinter in a few places, along with “known” Blackburnian and Pine Warblers). That meant I just need to find an Orange-crowned Warbler (the second most-regular December warbler after Yellow-rumped) and then one other stray.

So off I went…

Not wanting to take any species for granted, I twitched a Pine Warbler that was reliably coming to a feeder in Brunswick on the 10th. I had to wait all of three minutes for it to arrive on my way back from walking Sasha. If only they were all this easy!
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The next day I was once again at the Saco Yacht Club, looking for the Blackburnian Warbler (which I saw on Nov 30th – one day too early!). Activity didn’t pick up until the fog finally lifted after 10am, but I ran out of time. I did, however, enjoy another visit with the Tennessee, and 1 each of Yellow and Nashville Warblers. 2-3 Ruby-crowned Kinglets were also present, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler dropped in: my 7th species of the month! That and the Western Tanager were the consolation prizes (yes, I did just relegate the tanager to a consolation prize…shame on me… but I “needed” the Blackburnian!).
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I worked hard for an Orange-crowned Warbler in Portland on the 13th to no avail, but I did turn up the continuing Nashville Warbler along the Eastern Promenade (oh look, Portland ravaged vegetation here, too!) and a Gray Catbird on Sheridan St. I also took time to go visit the continuing Ross’s Goose along Stroudwater St in Westbrook – the third I have seen in Maine, and only the 6th or 7th state record.
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Continuing the quest, I had high hopes for the Southern York County Christmas Bird Count on the 14th. With a great territory that almost always turns up a good bird or three, Jeannette, Kristen Lindquist, and I worked the marsh, thickets, neighborhoods, and beach of the “Moody” sector. And we did indeed have a great day, including the 2nd Count Record Clay-colored Sparrow, the 5th Count Records of Baltimore Oriole and Lesser Scaup (21 – also a record high), and 6th Count Record of Dickcissel. But alas, not a single warbler. We didn’t even get a Yellow-rumped – for the first time, as there was virtually no fruit on the bayberry bushes along Ogunquit Beach or anywhere else.

When my friend Evan Obercian found a Yellow-throated Warbler at the Samoset Resort in Rockport on the 13th, my goal was definitely in sight (this was the “additional rarity” I needed), but in the weeks before Christmas, finding time was going to be a challenge. Luckily, a break in my schedule – and the rain – came on Thursday the 17th, so I got an early start and headed east.

I met up with Evan and Kristen and we wandered the grounds of the Samoset for almost two hours. I was not happy to find a stiff onshore breeze when I arrived, and it was increasing over the course of the morning. Then the mist rolled in, and soon, a steadier drizzle. There were not a lot of birds around (other than Canada Geese and Mallards on the golf course), and I was beginning to work on a plan to come back again. And not long thereafter, it called!

We spotted it in an isolated cluster of Scotch Pines, very near where Evan first saw it (and where we walked by 3 times already this morning). We followed it for about 30 minutes as it relocated to another grove before heading over to the hotel building, where it proceeded to forage in the sheltered porches of the four story building! Presumably gleaning insects from old webs in the corners and around furniture, clearly this bird had figured out a novel way of finding sustenance – especially on such a snotty day.

It was my 8th warbler of the month.
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I was back to the Saco Yacht Club with Luke Seitz the next morning, once again hoping for the Blackburnian. We worked the hillside and surrounding habitats hard, and absolutely cleaned up! The quick glimpse of a fly-by Western Tanager was more frustrating that satisfying, but we had great looks at the continuing Tennessee, Yellow, 2 Nashville, Common Yellowthroat, 2 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and then, finally, the Blackburnian! My 9th warbler of the month!

Luke’s quote sums it up: “Let’s take a moment to appreciate what we are seeing and hearing around us right now. What. The. (Expletive deleted)!”

I had a little more time, so I made a quick trip down to Biddeford Pool. Working the neighborhood and thickets, I found a small group of Yellow-rumped Warblers (4-5), a nice addition to the day list. Besides, up until now, I had only seen one all month!

I was in the midst of plotting “Operation Orange-crowned” when I wandered over to look at a chattering Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A loud chip note caught my attention, and I looked up to see this Prairie Warbler – my 10th species of warbler for the month (and 7th of the day)!
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But did you really think I would stop at 10?

Hunting for Orange-crowns in Portland and South Portland on the 21st, I turned up a Baltimore Oriole on Sheridan Street (likely the same individual that Jeannette and I found here on 11/23), and along West Commercial Street (in what’s left of the vegetation here!), I had a Swamp Sparrow, and a Field Sparrow – my 8th sparrow of the month.
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Hmmm…do I need to go for 10 sparrows, too?

Obviously!

So I went to Scarborough Marsh the next day, and quickly picked up a Savannah Sparrow along the Eastern Road Trail for #9.

Jeannette and I, post-holiday madness, continued the search on the 28th, combing the coast from Kittery through Wells. While nothing new was added, we did find three different Swamp Sparrows (two at Fort Foster, 1 in York Beach), and most excitingly, we relocated the Clay-colored Sparrow that we found on the CBC – a mere one block away. Once again, however, I managed only some quick phone-binned photos.
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A Northern Flicker and 5 Yellow-rumped Warblers were at Wells’ Community Park, while other highlights included 14 Sanderlings with Purple Sandpipers along Marginal Way in Ogunquit.

But before I knew it, it was December 31st. I still had yet to see an Orange-crowned Warbler (inconceivable!) for the month, and I was stuck at 9 species of sparrow. Therefore, Phil McCormack and I had a mission when we set out in the morning. We worked thickets and fields in Cape Elizabeth, with stops at various nooks and crannies in South Portland and Portland.

While we did not relocate the Lark Sparrow along Fessenden Road (it’s been a week since I have seen a report), we did have a Merlin there, and a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers at Crescent Beach State Park. Luke had an Orange-crowned Warbler at Camp Ketcha back on the 20th, but it was rather devoid of birds today.

Throughout the day, pockets of Song and American Tree Sparrows were indicative of recent movements and concentration following the snow and ice, but we were not prepared for the concentration of sparrows at a particularly fruitful patch. In fact, it was astounding!

75+ American Tree and 50+ Song Sparrows flew out of the field, joined by 10 or so White-throated Sparrows and 20 or more Dark-eyed Juncos. A continuing female Brown-headed Cowbird was there, along with at least 80 American Goldfinches and 30 or so House Finches. A Carolina Wren sang from the woods, and two Swamp Sparrows and a female Common Yellowthroat were in the marsh…I knew my 10th species of sparrow was here somewhere!
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After a teasing brief, distant but highly suggestive look, I finally found it – a Chipping Sparrow! My 10th species of sparrow in December!
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Shortly thereafter, a Savannah Sparrow (my second of the month) appeared – not just our 7th species of the day, but the 7th species in this one spot! Amazing! And now I had a 7 species of sparrow day and 10 species for the month to match my 7 species of warbler day and 10 species for the month! (The Double 7/10 Split?)

But of course, I still wanted an Orange-crowned Warbler, so we kept birding (well, after a long, celebratory lunch of course), and I tried a few more OC spots in Portland after Phil departed. I still can’t believe I saw 10 species of warbler in Maine in December, and none of them were Orange-crowned, but it seems a fitting finish to the month, and the year, was the continuing Baltimore Oriole and Gray Catbird sitting in the same tree in the Sheridan St lot!
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Meanwhile, some other highlights over the course of the month, of the non-warbler or sparrow variety, including more seasonal species, such as two Snowy Owls on a Saturday Morning Birdwalk on the 12th, my first Iceland Gull of the season (finally) in Old Port on the 15th, a Snowy Owl at Biddeford Pool on the 18th, Harlequin Ducks, Purple Sandpipers, and a growing legion of wintering waterbirds.

Other signs of the unseasonably warm month included a lingering Double-crested Cormorant in Portland Harbor on 12/15, a few more lingering dabblers and Great Blue Herons than usual, but surprisingly, I didn’t see a Hermit Thrush all month – had they all moved on or would some now show up as the snow and ice pushes them to coastal migrant traps? But the most unexpected of them all was the Little Blue Heron that was found in the tiny Jordan Park Marsh in Ocean Park. I stopped by to visit it on the 22nd, about two weeks into its unseasonable stay.
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Unfortunately, as much fun as this month has been – and as nice as it has been to not yet wear my parka – it’s impossible for me to ignore what this all means: the climate HAS changed. While no one month – warm or cold – is “climate change,” it is impossible for any rational person to not realize that our weather has become more and more unpredictable, less and less “normal,” and prone to more and more wild swings in seasonal and within-season variability. No, a hot day doesn’t mean Global Warming, nor does a snowstorm mean there’s not (Please James Inhoffe, please go away and shut the hell up). But the trends are real, very apparent, and very much here. Now. And they are most definitely affecting birds and bird migration.

That being said, I would not use these warblers as an example of this. Instead, I think the fact that here in December and they are still ALIVE, is however, a perfect example of just how ridiculously warm our weather has been! The mechanisms that delivered these birds to the Saco Riverwalk and elsewhere are likely varied. Perhaps the deformed, crossed-bill of the Tennessee Warbler impedes its ability to efficiently forage and put on the necessary weight for its next leg of migration. Perhaps the extensive southerly winds that have ushered in this warm air also facilitated the arrival of a 180-degree misoriented migrant Yellow-throated Warbler, and I would propose, the Prairie Warbler as well (I think the rare-but-regular late fall Prairies are actually birds from our south) that were “messed up” and flew the wrong way. But it is also possible that some of these warblers are “reverse migrants” that started to go south and then turned around, but I doubt it – facultative migrants like swallows and blackbirds do it, but I don’t know of any known proof that long-distance Neotropical migrants pull it off (on purpose, anyway).

These mechanisms occur every year, and rare warblers are found at places like the Saco Riverwalk every fall. However, they’re usually found in October and November and either move on (or, more likely perish) by now. So I think what’s remarkable is not that all of these warblers are here, but that they are still ALIVE well into December – and that is most definitely due to the mild winter so far. There have still been insects to be found, there’s plenty of fruit left to consume, and fewer calories have been spent to keep up internal body temperatures, meaning there are fewer calories that need to be consumed.

Migration in long-distance, obligate migrants is not triggered by temperatures, but trigged by physiological changes directed by hormones responding to the changing length of the day. In the fall, southbound migration is triggered in part by a response to changes in fat loading to fuel these epic journeys. At some point, the controls are switched away from building the fat reserves that are necessary for migration. I don’t know at what point in the season “pioneering” warblers lose the ability (perhaps, even the “desire”) to migrate. My guess is that even if you pumped these birds full of fat, at this point, they won’t be going anywhere – this is now their winter territory, for better, or for most likely, worse.

So what does this mean besides some amazing early winter birding? Good question. Conventional wisdom says these birds are all “evolutionary dead ends” that will soon be eliminated from the gene pool (it has to get cold sometime, right? If they’re not picked off by a Sharp-shinned Hawk or all of the damn outdoor cats that hunt there). However, with the effects of Global Climate Change clearly upon us, and not reversing anytime soon (if ever), perhaps these “pioneers” are the wave of the future. Maybe someday, warblers will successfully overwinter in Maine, and return to their breeding grounds to pass on those genes.

Maybe. Afterall, without vagrancy, we would not have Hawaiian honeycreepers or Darwin’s finches; distant islands would be sans all landbirds. Perhaps phenomena like “reverse migration” and this pioneering thing will allow the next wave of adaption to a changing climate. Of course, never before in the history of life on earth, has this change occurred so rapidly, and we have little evidence suggesting long-distant migrants can adapt this quickly – it’s going to take more than a few individuals of 10 species of warblers.

Sparrows, however, aren’t obligate long-distance migrants that are “programmed” to leave at a prescribed time. Instead, they are more flexible in their movements, and being seed-eaters, they aren’t reliant on warm-weather dependent insects. As long as seeds are available, and with the complete dearth of snow, they most certainly have been, those that linger can do just fine. White-throated, American Tree, Song, and Dark-eyed Juncos are all regular parts of our winter avifauna in southern Maine, lingering or “pioneering” Swamp Sparrows are regular here and there, and every now and then a Lark Sparrow (a “drift migrant/vagrant” from the Midwest) or Field Sparrow spends the winter in the state. Field and Clay-colored are also rare-but-regular in late fall/early winter, so once again, the presence of 10 species of sparrows is also not in and of itself caused by the record temperatures, but it is most definitely another sign of how mild – and especially snow-free – it has been.

But this is all a blog for another time…this blog was supposed to be about warblers (and sparrows!). In Maine. In December. And that’s amazing. Or, as Luke said, “What. The. (Expletive deleted).”