Due to this birding column, I get asked a lot of questions. Not different questions, mind you. I mostly get asked the same questions over and over. That’s normal, because naturally there are certain questions that are on every reader’s mind. The top question recently: Where are all the birds?
For the second year in a row, there has been a lot of natural food in the treetops. Bird feeders across Maine have hung lifeless since the end of September, including mine. Yet when I go for a walk, I’m seeing and hearing just as many birds as usual. In short, the chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers and goldfinches are still around. They’re just feasting on the natural abundance. They’ll be back to the feeders as soon as snow covers some of their forest food.
Next frequently asked question: Is it possible I saw an albino bird? Theoretically, yes. But they’re rare, and true albinos face constant survival challenges. More likely, you saw a leucistic bird. An albino bird would be completely white with pink eyes, because it is genetically incapable of making any kind of pigment. A leucistic bird is one that has trouble making melanin, the dark pigment that produces black color in feathers and tan color in skin. It’s often patchy, so that the bird is not completely white. I saw a mostly white red-tailed hawk near the Sidney exit off I-95 last winter, and darned if he isn’t back again this year.
A third question: Can you identify a bird for me? Yes. I can usually identify a photo by email, or even a bird song recorded by cellphone.
Well, now I have opened myself up to a world of trouble. I can usually identify a bird from a good photo. But some photos I receive are distant, blurry and dark. Worse, it’s hard to judge size from a photo, and the telltale field marks are often obscured. Worst case, the bird is dead.
I see a lot of birds in various poses, but dead is not a pose I see often. I was a little timid when I received a photo of a deceased bird found on a doorstep in Hampden. The alert readers were able to take a good close-up because, let’s face it, the dead bird wasn’t about to fly away.
The bird was a speckled gray, with a spotted breast. But the first thing that grabbed my attention was the bill. It was longer and thinner than a robin’s, and slightly down-curved. This was a species that feeds on the ground, plucking morsels from the surface, using its bill like a pair of chopsticks. Thrushes and starlings are species that feed mostly on the ground, but their bills are shorter, straighter and yellowish.
This mystery corpse appeared to be a shorebird. Its legs were very short, eliminating all of the taller shorebirds. The legs were yellow, eliminating many of the shorter shorebirds, whose legs are generally dark. Least sandpipers have yellowish-green legs, but their plumage is much browner. This bird was the color of wet granite, which is precisely the color of purple sandpipers. They forage at the waterline along Maine’s rocky coast in winter, and their chief defense is to look like the rock they’re standing on.
However, I still had three problems with this identification. First, the bill was nearly black, whereas the bill of a purple sandpiper is yellow at the base. Perhaps it was a young bird. Since young, inexperienced birds suffer higher mortality in migration, it would help explain why it was lying there stiff.
Second, this was a skinny bird. Purple sandpipers are pleasingly plump. Perhaps it simply ran out of fuel on its long migration from the Arctic Circle.
Third, what in tarnation was it doing in Hampden? It should be in the splash zone along the ocean’s edge. Perhaps it was following a migratory route that used the Penobscot River as a navigational aid. Perhaps it ran into a headwind and was blown off course.
Oh, and there is a fourth possible problem. I might be dead wrong. Perhaps alert readers will quickly point out all of the evidence that demonstrates the error of my identification.
Which brings me to my oft-repeated advice: The best way to make fewer birding mistakes is to make more mistakes. Nobody remembers their correct identifications, but they sure remember their goofs. Don’t be shy. A willingness to make mistakes is the fastest way to learn. Seize every chance to be wrong.
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 email@example.com.