For Maine birders, the effects of climate change are impossible to ignore
It’s been 10 years now since I started writing the “Good Birding” column for the Bangor Daily News. I wish I could say that every column is carefully planned, but who am I kidding?
Looking back, it is painfully obvious that my subjects are guided by the seasons. In spring, everything revolves around returning migrants. At the beginning of May, there will be a column on the identification of bird songs. I will probably educate readers about spring walks, festivals, and puffin trips.
By July, most of the birds stopped singing. They focus on the laser to raise the children. Watching their behavior provides endless inspiration for the columns. In August, Gulf of Maine seabirds and mudflat shorebirds demand attention.
September brings the hawks and most of the songbirds leave. All this avian wandering inevitably brings some rare birds that are worth writing about. As the local birds prepare for winter, the feeders become more active, inspiring more columns.
I am fascinated by the great diversity of birds and habitats in Maine. I could write endlessly. And you would be bored. I should have seen it coming. While there are hundreds of interesting birds in Maine, it’s those in our own backyards that fascinate people the most. I travel statewide, but the best reviews come in when I stay home.
Thanks to COVID, I have been staying home more than usual lately. Spending more time with my own backyard birds was the unintended benefit of an otherwise horrific pandemic. I noticed things that I hadn’t recognized before and wrote about them.
As a casual feeder watcher, I saw the birds come and go, but never paid much attention to them. Slowly I started to notice patterns in the way birds use my garden. Each species had its own strategy, which governed when they entered, how they entered, and how long they stayed. Some wanted the company of other birds, increasing vigilance of predators. Some didn’t care.
The little assholes have a system, and I went into it. If I moved around my yard in a predictable, non-threatening manner, I didn’t get more intimidating than patio furniture. Sometimes we even talked to each other. I wrote about it.
Nature itself has a system. The weekly deadlines draw attention to the subtle changes that occur during each of the 52 weeks of the year, in ways that might otherwise have escaped me.
I knew migratory birds came back in the spring, but now I knew what week, and even what day. I knew that bird visits to feeders were spotty throughout the year, depending on the natural food supply and where they were in the breeding cycle. Now I notice these changes from week to week.
This column forced me to observe climate change in real time. As Maine warms up, I noticed that the birds from the south were heading north and the birds from the north were disappearing.
When I started this column, Caroline Wren were almost unknown in eastern Maine. This summer, I met a Caroline troglodyte singing in Lubec!
Cardinals, crested tits and red-bellied woodpeckers continue their relentless march north. The Eastern Screech Owls settled in southern Maine.
If I take better care of myself, I expect to live long enough to see southern birds like black vultures and Mississippi kites breeding on this side of the New Hampshire border. Meanwhile, boreal chickadees are among the state’s fastest-disappearing birds.
In just 10 years, I have seen these brown-capped chickadees disappear all along the lower east coast, and their numbers drop in the woods of northern Maine. Over the past three years, I have watched the Gulf of Maine change. Atlantic puffins are in trouble. Seabirds that visit the nutrient-rich waters of Maine from all parts of the globe have declined. Even some of the whales moved further offshore.
You might not realize it, but I get most of my inspiration from you. My email address is listed at the bottom of each column. Readers send photos and audio recordings in the hope that I can identify them. When a strange season affects the birds that come to everyone’s feeders, I hear about it. When someone sees a strange bird or a discolored bird, I hear about it. Questions from readers can inspire a whole column.
I lead walks and give lectures. I spend time with people of all skill levels and see first-hand the challenges that inexperienced bird watchers face. My mission is to demystify the identification of birds by sight, sound and even behavior. I can write the column, but you are also part of this team.