Advent, Day 11: Adventures of a New Maine Birder

Dear readers,
 The Maine for an adventure a day, each day of this advent season — big or small, by land or sea, with friends or solo, in image or word, exuberant or contemplative, real or conceptual. We live in a state of wonder, its wide open spaces anticipating our
hope and joy.

Brian Willson has been with The Maine from the beginning, offering insight into the chirping, screeching, tweeting and cooing company of birds that inhabit or migrate through our neck of the woods. Brian’s great attention to detail and crisp captures with the camera are always appreciated. On our tenth day of ADVENTure Brian tells us how it all began.

We had all been looking for birds, so species was strongly in mind. I was alert for diagnostic characters: bill, behavior, color, profile, design, walk, run, hop, flight, etc.—you know, “a hair, perhaps, divides the false from true.” —Roy Bedichek

I didn’t start birding until about half my life ago, when I moved from balmy central Texas to the chilly coast of Maine. This change of latitude is significant. The natural sounds and sights I grew up with—the backyard voices of Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers, black and turkey vultures soaring overhead—changed for me in an eye-blink. Nothing seemed familiar anymore.

And it thrilled me, of course, which was part of the whole idea. Shake things up. Get uncomfortable. Investigate the new and strange. But not until early in my first May here—after easily conquering that first Maine winter (learning to love cutting and splitting wood in the process) and then somehow surviving that first long mud season—did things begin to get interesting. It was the time of the return of the nesting songbirds.

My daughter had turned one by the time that first spring rolled around, and I served as her primary caregiver. This gave me the chance to wander, child snug in a backpack behind me, out into the trees surrounding our hideaway down the St. George Peninsula, learning the new smells and sights and sounds. But it was the sounds that most captivated me: the strange chorus of birdsong coming from the top of the budding hardwoods. So many different voices—sweet musical phrases, buzzy hiccups, machine-like cycles and chips—and yet the birds themselves moving through the canopy were so tiny that they might as well have been invisible. But I had binoculars. And I had a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America. And, occasionally, nap time gave me a half-hour or so to crash around willy-nilly in the woods in pursuit of small migrating birds.

What began benignly enough soon became an adventure. I’d walk out, hear an unfamiliar call, and follow the sound with binoculars raised, hopeful of catching sight of the bird whose throat it came from. Upon finally seeing the singer itself—nearly all these birds turned out to be wood-warblers, tiny colorful insect eaters that move through in waves each spring—I’d get a good look at the bird, flip through Peterson’s until I found its picture, gape in awe for a moment, then connect its song with its name in my head and move on to the next song in the trees. In spring, yellow-rumped warblers are pretty dramatic to look at, but they’re also not that hard to chase down.

Well, after a while, I was having to chase down black-throated blue warblers, blackpoll warblers, ovenbirds, and other species whose numbers were fewer and whose habits more reclusive. This meant crashing through thickets and tangles and alder swamps, getting scratched and wet and muddy in the process, all the while trying to keep tabs on a bird no larger than a shuttlecock high in the leafing-out trees. All this, and remembering to make it back to the house before my kiddo awoke from her nap.

Strange birdsong is what hooked me, that first spring. The thrill of spotting a chestnut-sided warbler for the first time, and connecting its plumage to its song. The delight in understanding the buzzy language of a black-throated green or northern parula—and in the surprise discovery that they had alternate, very different songs, depending on the time of year.

Ironically, these days, I can step outside right here on the 44th parallel and hear the call of a Carolina wren or a red-bellied woodpecker. The warmth has pushed these species north. Heck, I’ve even seen a black vulture circling the summit of Beech Hill.

But I’ll always remember the excitement, the sense of discovery, the feeling of being on an outright adventure that, during my first spring in Maine, turned me into a birder.

Besides birds, Brian is also an expert typographer. Read a recent feature about his work here.