July birding is hard. To demonstrate, I ventured into Bangor City Forest for two consecutive mornings last weekend. I expected the birds to be uncooperative, and they lived down to my expectations.
For starters, most birds have stopped singing. Black-throated green warblers are among the most common birds there, yet I heard only two, briefly. Throughout early July, I could hear them twittering call notes to their fledglings. That stopped a few weeks ago.
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Northern waterthrushes are among the earliest birds to go silent. Even though they nest near the entrance to the boardwalk, I heard one song, one time, and that was it.
Flycatchers go quiet early. Even my backyard eastern phoebes have given up their caterwauling. It’s been weeks since I’ve heard a great-crested, alder or least flycatcher. Eastern wood-pewees persisted a little longer, but they are now falling silent. Only eastern kingbirds are still full of pep. Olive-sided flycatchers stay vocal into mid-August, but this denizen of the northern forest is not heard much in Maine’s populated areas.
As if this silent treatment wasn’t bad enough, appearances are deceiving. Many bird parents look bedraggled. Some are molting prior to heading south next month. In the spring, birds arrive in their finest feathers, hoping to woo mates. But after several months of courtship and family raising, some disheveled birds aren’t measuring up to their guidebook pictures. A few look as bad as my passport photo, almost unrecognizable.
On the other hand, the youngsters aren’t looking much better. Many fledglings leave the nest clad in temporary plumage, sometimes downy, often streaky. The streaks and colors are typically subdued, lending camouflage to youngsters that are not yet wise to predators. Yellow warbler fledglings aren’t yellow. They’re gray. Even though chipping sparrows are widely distributed in the state, one can be forgiven for not recognizing the streaky youngsters following their parents around the yard.
To be fair, Bangor City Forest was still semi-alive with bird song last weekend, at least early in the morning. Some of the usual suspects were not very vocal, including the northern parula and Blackburnian warbler. Nashville warblers nest along the main path, as do winter wrens, and they were totally silent. But the black-and-white, magnolia, pine and Canada warblers shared a few songs. Several ovenbirds joined them occasionally.
I laughed at the magnolia warblers, who were apparently singing for the pure joy of it, since they were no longer defending territories. I watched one male singing while preening on a treetop, as another male foraged just below him. They both knew where the other was. They just no longer cared.
I witnessed the same thing at the entrance to the boardwalk. Two Canada warblers were singing, much closer to each other than they would normally tolerate. Early in the summer, they would be jealously guarding their mates and territories, and confronting other males singing too closely.
I laughed at the blue-headed vireos. Every one of them was singing at daybreak. There must have been at least a half dozen sounding off, probably more. However, the red-eyed vireos slept late. They outnumber their blue-headed cousins, and are usually far more vocal, but they didn’t start tuning up until hours after sunrise. I can’t explain it.
Out on the bog boardwalk, another mystery awaited. As expected, palm warblers were abundant, flitting all over and calling regularly. Yet not a single bird sang. That was weird, because this bog-dwelling species typically sings well into August. I think last weekend’s hot, humid weather discouraged them.
I heard a Lincoln’s sparrow calling. In their vocabulary, Lincoln’s sparrows only know one swear word, and it’s the chip note they hurl at intruders. It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t swearing at me. He was calmly sitting atop a dwarf spruce, not bothering to hide, not even looking my way. Maybe he was just practicing his cussing?
July birding is hard. It’s also amusing. Although most migratory birds swarm into Maine at about the same time every spring, each species then goes about its mating rituals on its own timetable. Some are in a rush. Some wait until their preferred food supply develops. Some birds raise more than one brood.
All this variation comes back to reveal itself in mid-summer. Some birds are all done, and have gone silent. Some still sing, but only for a short time in the morning. Some don’t start singing until after that first cup of coffee. Breeding season is a three-act opera. Enjoy the show.