Birders Offer Lessons in Staying Aware Outdoors

May 20, 2014

You know it's springtime in Maine when the birds wake you up before your alarm clock does. Right now is peak season for the spring bird migration. That means bird watchers -- both amateurs and experts -- are out with their binoculars in woods and fields all over Maine. Jennifer Rooks headed out to Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park with ornithologist Jeff Wells.

When Jeff Wells heads into the woods, he hears things most of us don't.

"That super-high pitch sound, 'zzzz,' that's a blackburnian warbler," Wells says.

Not background noise. But discrete, individual voices.

"That's a chipping sparrow, one of our smaller sparrows, bright red cap, and they have a trill that’s one of the most common summer sounds," he says.

It's about seven in the morning, and I've met Wells at Wolfe's Neck Park in Freeport. But he says you don't have to go a special place right now to find migrating birds -- they're everywhere.

"I have this little park near my office in Gardiner, that's only like 100 feet by 200 feet square, but it's been packed with warblers for the past two weeks," he says. "But this is a great place year-round, because it has ocean and forest and a little mix of habitats. That was a black-throated green warbler. 'Zee zee zee zoh zee,' right behind us."

Wells gives me a lesson in spotting birds. Look for the trees that are just budding.

"Right now with the migration in full swing, the birds are keying in on the trees that are flowering or where the leaves have just come out because that's where the bugs are most abundant," he says. "And so, as the season progresses, they'll change from one type of tree to another. And it's just amazing. To us, we just kind of think of the forest as all being the same. But where they are, the birds, are going around and finding little islands of habitat."

At the shoreline, we see osprey, eiders, loons, black ducks ... and something Jeff gets pretty excited about: a long-tail duck, preening its elegant narrow tail.

"It's a bird that winters down here on our coast, and then flies up to the Arctic to nest," he says. "And this one's still hanging around waiting for it to thaw out way up there I suppose, before it heads back."

The collection of birds from far-flung corners of this world make this one spot a place of remarkable diversity. Some of the warblers in the trees behind us have just arrived after an epic journey from Central America -- these ducks are about to depart for the Arctic. But right now, they are all here, in the same place, in Maine.

As we head out of the Wolfe's Neck Park, we run into park employee John Cook.

"How bout I show you where the pileated woodpecker nest is?" he says.

Cook pays close attention to the birds in the park. He shows us a dead birch tree with a pileated woodpecker nest, and tells us about last summer, when a storm knocked down a big osprey nest.

"This happened on Friday and on Sunday we were building the box back up," he says.

He and other park employees rescued a chick and, later discovered two other chicks alive on the forest floor.

"It was really great that we found the two chicks that were missing and were put back into the nest," Cooke says. "That was our highlight for last summer."