You can observe just by watching

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

American Redstart

Writing the “nature bummin” column for the Dragon the last couple of years has been great for me in many ways. (Thank you to Julie and Betsy for encouraging these columns). It’s been wonderful to share stories, but just as wonderful to hear the nature stories of others. Once word gets out that you are interested in a topic, people start to share their own experiences with you, and nature observation is no different. With this in mind, I have always appreciated and encouraged people to share their nature observations and sightings with me. In complete disclosure and for purely selfish reasons, having people sharing is a total “win” for me. I am way more interested in learning what others have been seeing than talking about what I see. I mean, I already know what I see, and if I want to learn more I can’t think of a better way than to soak in what others are seeing. And so, yes, I am using you for knowledge. Could be worse…

For the month of May, the talk on the “nature” streets has been about birds. Birds are wonderful year-round of course, but spring is a season that combines the wonder of migration, the energy and anticipation of an upcoming breeding season, and a resurgence of forest life in general to create a lively bird scene. It should be noted—spring songbird migration is often given as a reason, one of many, as to why why my wife Amy and I moved to Maine. We are big fans.

Palm Warbler

Anyway, the stories floating around have been great—a family of woodcocks in a backyard, a photo of a broad-winged hawk shared with me at a baseball game, tales of red breasted grosbeak and indigo buntings at feeders, rumors of a yard that has hosted both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers this season (two tanager yards in these parts are hard to come by in my experience) and conversations at the library that begin with an enthusiastic, “What is up with all the crazy birds around?” I have seen none of these (and so much more), but hearing about them is a way to get a taste of what’s happening!

In this completely biased nature observer’s opinion, however, spring bird migration is all about the warblers. And much to my pleasure, recent strolls along my favorite neighborhood routes have been turning out to be very warblery.

A favorite characteristic of the Wood-warblers (Family Parulidae) of Northeastern North America is their diversity. Over 25 species of warbler migrate through or nest in our area each spring, and with so many species it’s no surprise that warblers fill just about every conceivable niche in the woods. They can be found in almost any habitat—marshes, riparian zones, fields and forests both hardwood or coniferous—with species ranging from being specialists (ie. Palm warbler breeding specifically in bogs) to super adaptable (i.e., the Yellow-rumped warbler and their “whatever, wherever, whenever” nutritional strategy).

Magnolia Warbler

Warbler diversity also extends into feather patterns, making the Parulidae one of the more “aesthetically” pleasing groups of birds. Variations in shades and arrangements of yellows, blues, blacks, greens and oranges result in an array of looks that add color and beauty to any yard, shrub, tree or neighborhood. One of my favorite warblers is the Magnolia, with its brilliant, bright yellow chest that’s only interrupted for a dangling necklace of black. It’s not uncommon to cross paths with Magnolias in coniferous forests, such as along the Town Forest Loop trail off Kinney Woods Road. Years ago I received a yellow shirt painted with the male Magnolia Warbler’s wing and body patterns. One of the coolest presents ever!

Northern Parula

Warblers also bring a cacophony of song upon arrival each spring. The Magnolia’s “weety, weety, weet-eo” being one of a spectrum of sound, pitch, and subtleness that makes up the Eastern North America warbler song chorus. For my biased ears, warblers are what make spring mornings great, as each song is as distinctive as it is beautiful. Take the Northern Parula’s song of “ohhhhhhhhhh, shoot!”—constructed as a rising note followed by an immediate drop. A common song on our peninsula wherever Old Man’s Beard lichen can be found. Or the radiating, yet pleasing “TEACHER, TEACHER, TEACHER!” of the Ovenbird. These are the songs that grab me, and inspire fist pumps and “ohh yeahs” as if hearing the voice of an old friend you haven’t heard from for some time. Like say a year or so.

Spring is a great time for a plethora of reasons, some of which are nature based. And while it’s always a good time to get outside, spring can be an especially exciting time with migration and avian hormones raging. And while keeping an eye on what’s up bird-wise in your ‘hood falls into the “getting to know your neighbor” category, it is also important to share what you learn or what you see, for the greater good, but also for the selfish reasons I mentioned before. I already know what I know, let’s hear what you know. Everyone wins when we share.

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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