I have reclaimed my deck, at last. Spring is my busy season. Since mid-May, I have guided for three birding festivals, a Road Scholars program, two five-day tours and a couple of Maine Audubon events. I have a good sense of what birds are doing everywhere in Maine except in my own backyard.
Today is different. I am sitting and listening. It’s good to be home.
At this moment, I don’t see any actual birds. But above my roof, a northern parula sings. Likewise, a pine warbler is singing next door. From the lake, a loon yodels and an osprey calls. The flycatchers have been noisy all morning. An eastern wood-pewee has been trading calls with a great-crested flycatcher. Eastern phoebes are nesting under my eaves, but they are used to me and barely complain when I walk by.
A bald eagle just flew in, whereupon the loon changed its tune from a territorial yodel to an alarm wail. Now a downy woodpecker is drumming. I can tell it’s a downy because I can clearly hear every tap. It’s slower than the hairy woodpecker’s drum that I heard 15 minutes ago. That drum is so fast that the taps blur together.
I’ve missed this. Mainers live in a special place where the forest talks to us. Sure, every place has its own set of birds and noises. I’m certain that if I were swinging in a Georgia hammock right now, I’d be hearing some birds, too. For sure, I’d hear a Carolina wren, and probably a tufted titmouse, and maybe a cardinal. But that would be about it. So many of North America’s breeding birds fly right over the rest of the country in a hurry to get up here.
Once here, all those migrants join the locals. The white-breasted nuthatches have been particularly chatty this morning. Black-capped chickadees should be on nests right now, so they are notably more quiet. One male did sing his territorial “hey sweetie” song earlier, and another emitted one “chickadee-dee-dee” a short time ago.
In fact, the silence is also talking to me. My home is surrounded by chipping sparrows. Until now, they’ve been persistently vocal all spring. But I haven’t heard a peep all day. The nestlings must be getting pretty close to fledging. Soon, I expect to see two tired parents being chased around the yard by a handful of ravenous kids.
I took a break for lunch. It’s now a little later. The flycatchers have gone silent, but the vireos have become noisier. A red-eyed vireo has been singing nearly nonstop since sunrise. A blue-headed vireo has joined the chorus, singing sporadically. Their songs are a reminder that the season has a rhythm. Birds get progressively noisier and quieter, depending on the cycle of their particular species. Blue-headed vireos arrive in late April. They quickly establish territories, and then get to work making babies. They were singing a lot when it was time to attract a mate, but they’re quieter now, singing just enough to lay claim to a good feeding territory.
Meanwhile, red-eyed vireos have come all the way from the tropics. They arrived in Maine three weeks later than the blue-headed vireos. They currently have kids on the nest, and sing often to remind potential competitors to stay out of their territories and not eat the food they’re protecting for their nestlings. Once the kids are off the nest, they’ll sing less and call more, keeping the family together. The call sounds like a downward “zreeee,” and they’ll do it through the summer. But not yet. This is their peak singing season, and they may sing over 20,000 songs a day.
American goldfinches, on the other hand, won’t nest for another month or more. They’re cavorting around the yard, noisy and carefree.
Aha! I see where the great-crested flycatchers are nesting! They are in the knothole of a birch about 60 feet from my Adirondack chair. No wonder they’ve been noisy in front of the house, but not in the backyard. They do not want to call attention to their secret.
Every yard has its own drama, including yours. The variety of birds and the chorus of songs will vary by habitat. But once you learn the language of your own forest talking to you, the pleasures of sitting quietly in one place and enjoying nature’s subtle performance is immeasurable. You can do it while reading a book, doing a crossword puzzle or writing a newspaper column.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.