IN THE FIELD: Birds close to home

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By Tuesday, May 24 Environment
Maha Katnani
The American woodcock.

May is the height of spring migration, and most would say that this is the best time of year to get out and look at birds. They are vocal and in colorful breeding plumages, some species here to stay, others just passing through. They seem to show up all at once, right on schedule. Suddenly, birds are dripping from the trees.

The other day, I was planning to go on a birding trip to a Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC) property. But not quite ready to get out of bed at 7 a.m., I convinced myself that a walk out the door on my own time would be just as good.

As birding habitat, one can do a lot worse than these country roads in the Housatonic River Valley, that start in farmland and later curve up into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This route has endeared itself to me, and getting to know one area well has its benefits. It’s quite remarkable how the same birds are always in the same places, and how two miles in one direction takes me through what feels like completely different worlds.

The open farmland abounds with bluebirds, song sparrows, and red-winged blackbirds. Baltimore orioles sing by the river, along with redstarts, yellow warblers and warbling vireos. Near the river today I spot a couple of cedar waxwings and the first indigo bunting of the season.

They are quiet now, but evenings in March and April, woodcock regularly call and display in the soggy fields just outside my door. Hunted as game birds, these are actually large, awkward-looking shorebirds. Their nasal calls, which have the approximate tonal quality of a kazoo, emanate from spring fields before they take to the sky, chirping like a wind-up toy. (See video below)

 

Soon, I’ll be able to peer over the bridge at the riverbanks and see spotted sandpipers almost every time, bobbing their tails as they work the river’s edge. Solitary sandpipers, too, sometimes; two species that don’t require coastal habitats.

I’m not the only one who cares about these patterns. Scientists today gather and analyze data from ordinary people through eBird. Anyone who knows what they’re looking at can report the birds they see. So today I’ve decided to record the birds I encounter. It’s not hard to remember the more exciting species that turn up, but to attune myself to the common birds requires a special kind of focus. From the tapestry of birds’ sounds that almost don’t register, I make a mental note for every chip of a cardinal or a downy woodpecker, every cry of a blue jay or crow. Later, I’ll input my best estimate of how many of each species I heard or saw.

Beyond the river, the common yellowthroats are dutifully singing from the patch of marsh. There are barn swallows on the sagging horse barn, and chipping sparrows in the grassy yards. I’ve already seen over 20 species.

The winter wren. Photo: Maha Katnani

The winter wren. Photo: Maha Katnani

Then, the houses end and the road turns dirt. On Google Maps, it’s faded out. This is my favorite part, cool and shady in summer, with forest birds calling from the mixed hemlock woods. I hear an array of warblers: ovenbird, black-throated blue, black-and-white, black-throated green — whose buzzy song always takes me back to the piney woods of Maine. Thrushes dart across the road, and sapsuckers drill on their trees. Sometimes I hear the magical, cascading song of a winter wren.

Off to one side is a beaver pond, where I’ve spent a good amount of time mesmerized. I descend past the “No Dumping” sign (which only seems to encourage people) and stand at the edge of this microhabitat surrounded by forest. There are tree swallows swooping onto snags, and kingbirds perched on distant wires. Once I saw a great egret, somewhat surprising for being so close to the mountains. Often a kingfisher rattles through or a barred owl calls in the distance.

These marshy banks are one of only two places where I’ve ever encountered alder flycatchers. A yellow-throated vireo typically sings here, presumably with a nest not far away. Because I’m listening for them today, I’m pretty sure I catch a distant phrase from each. (The song of the yellow-throated vireo in video below):

 

Past the pond, the woods change character and become swampy. Appropriately enough, a swamp sparrow pops out of the skunk cabbage. Once, early in the morning, I stood in the silence here and caught the distant drumming of a ruffed grouse. At first, I thought the thumping was my own heartbeat.

At the end of two miles, the road opens into a clearing around a stream. The subtle shift brings orioles and redstarts back in, while least flycatchers dart around the stream.

The combination of predictability and surprise makes a well-known route rewarding, whether one is birding or enjoying it in some other way. I walk home much more quickly, mostly passing the same birds, but I glance up, back out in the bright sun of the river valley, and see a juvenile bald eagle spiraling alongside a red-tailed hawk.


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