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Spring is a busy time of year for observers of wildlife. Birds are signing all over the place and, of course, it’s necessary to spot and identify them as quickly as they appear. There are quite a few silent types out there; the buzzards, hawks, grouse and eagles, ospreys and most of the ducks that are now moving in right behind the last of the winter’s ice. On any given April walk in the woods half of the critters you’ll see won’t have anything to say, while others can’t seem to shut up!
My bird-watching forays invariably begin on the back deck while I’m having my sunrise cup of tea. Robins, chickadees, titmice, turkeys, crows and juncos are the most vociferous of the locals at first light. Blue jays, white-throated sparrows, cowbirds and downy woodpeckers make their presence known along with the occasional chirps of the nuthatches and brown creepers. There are phoebes and bluebirds chiming in as well once the sun is well up, and then the phalanx of gray and red squirrels start heading for the sunflower seed, some coming from the safety of their dens on the hardwood ridge over 100 yards away. My rule is “free food for all” and pesky rodents are included. Some mornings of late I’ve had 10 gray squirrels and four or five reds dodging each other for a piece of the action. There’s plenty for all but for some reason they don’t seem to realize that and fight over every morsel; not much different from humans if you think about it.
By mid-morning it’s time for some serious, binoculars-in-hand observations. I like to spend an hour or two cruising the edges of the vernal pool that sits atop the highest ridge in the area. In wet years like this one the pool is more like a pond, wide but not very deep, surrounded by brush and small saplings that provide the perfect mix of habitat that the more secretive songbirds of the region prefer. Remnants of last year’s nests still hang in the saplings, and already the mosquitoes are lurking near the water, the ideal source of protein for small birds that are busy mating and nesting.
I’ve found that my birding is most productive when I pick a secluded spot and just sit and watch. When I have the time I’ll bring my little gas stove and brew some tea or coffee because I may spend several hours sitting in the same place. Some birds, I’ve found, are quite tolerant of human intrusion, primarily the back-yard contingent, but in the woods life is more risky and intolerance is the better part of valor for most critters. The mice, shrews and voles that skitter past under cover of the dried up leaves from last fall waste no time sitting still. I can hear them, sometimes see them, but not for long. They know that exposure means death from predators on the ground and in the trees, and that big lump drinking tea on the stone wall can’t be trusted. In my book encounters count, so whatever I see or hear is a coup that day.
What’s interesting to me I that wildlife activity near these vernal pools is continuous and varied, changing by the minute with the splashes of tree frogs and the slow progress of meandering salamanders to the hum and buzz of wood ducks and the occasional hooded merganser. On land there are several species of warblers that, surprisingly, don’t warble much at all; in fact, most of the common warblers I see in spring are silent, or seem so to my aging ears. Counting warblers is a visual game, requiring great concentration and quick-on-the-draw binocular work. These tiny birds flit from branch to branch like leaves blown by the wind, and they can be seen near ground level or in the tops of the tallest oaks and maples. I rarely see them while walking, hence the stone wall and tea routine, but if I sit quietly long enough they’ll appear just long enough for verification.
There are some bigger birds in the mix in the brush surrounding the vernal pool including thrashers, thrushes, catbirds and red-winged black birds. Higher up the grackles and black birds compete for perches while the try to out-sing each other. It’s usually loud and boisterous when the black birds arrive, but they stay only a few minutes and are off again with a whoosh of wings. Over the last half-century or so I’ve seen hundreds of black birds more often than I’ve seen one, but I’m sure that come spring they pair off and take care of their nesting chores before gathering again in autumn for the great, noisy migration.
Other common denizens of the vernal pool are the grouse and woodcock. During the day bother are rather quiet, although the male grouse will hop atop a stone wall or mossy log and begin creating a sound with his wings that sounds like a bass drummer having a seizure. In fact, it’s called “drumming,” and birders attuned to the sound can pick it up from several hundred yards away. That’s the idea, of course; he wants every female grouse in the county to hear him and come running with thoughts of egg-laying coursing through her mind.
Woodcock are most active after dark in spring, but during the day they sit quietly near wetland areas. Their feathers are a perfect mix of browns and blacks, perfectly matched to their preferred habitat of dead leaves and detritus. Spend enough time in the alders and you’ll come close to stepping on a loafing woodcock. He’ll flush on whistling wings and then land just a few yards away, almost apologetically. I doubt that there’s a more tolerant bird out there unless it’s sitting on a nest. Even then I think the woodcock would hold one step longer than the average turkey or grouse.
I make it a point to circle the vernal pool for one last look around before heading home to begin more responsible activities. I note the tracks of deer, raccoons, mink and weasels, which I file in the back of my mind till next time. Still no signs of bear or moose, which means I’ll have to come back again soon!
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