December 28, 2021, 7:13am
As many of you probably know, we are having some light snow at the moment. It looks like the snow will end soon and it is supposed to be a beautiful day today. I encourage you to assess the conditions at your house, and communicate with your co-counters (if you have them) about your comfort level going out. You can start later in the day if you need to.
Such was the message that Mary Jewett sent out for those of us covering Maine Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in the Sweden Circle. Referring to Sweden, Maine, that is.
My assignment: Walk the trails in Bridgton’s Pondicherry Park and Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest, both highlighted in red, and count birds of whatever species presented on this winter day.
And so . . . into the park I went–from the backside because it’s the easiest way for me to access the park from our back door.
Looking about, I thought about Maine Audubon’s Forestry For Maine Birds assessment and how this spot checked off many of the needs noted:
- Gap in the overstory
- Trees over 30 feet tall
- Trees 6 – 30 feet tall
- Some age variety
- Snags over 6 feet tall
- Large downed wood
I couldn’t speak for smaller downed wood or leaf litter or saplings, but still, this space is a bird’s paradise and in the spring the amount of song and color and flight bespeaks the wealth this community offers. It’s a wee bit quieter in winter. Or a whole lot quieter.
But quiet can be interrupted and by its chirps I knew a Northern Cardinal was in the neighborhood. His red coat provided such a contrast to the morning’s snowy coating. Notice how he’s all puffed up? That’s because birds can trap their body heat between feathers to stay warm in the winter.
I searched and searched for his Mrs. but never did spy her.
There was a different Mrs. to admire, however. And she stood out from the many as I counted about 43 Mallards all together, and it seemed they were divided almost evenly by gender, but most dabbled along Stevens Brook. I found this Mrs. on Willet Brook, where she was accompanied by her Mr.
Handsome as he was, she followed he in an act of synchronized swimming, for it seemed that with each swivel he took in the water, she did the same.
I walked the trail in slo-mo, listening and watching and hoping for the rare sighting. Other than the Mallards, and Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, all was rather quiet.
After a few hours walking through the park and other than the aforementioned, plus a few Bluejays and American Crows, I headed north to Highland Research Forest (HRF) where I was sure a wetland would offer something special.
But first, I decided to treat myself to a visit to a set of trees at HRF known to host a porcupine. Porcupine sightings were hot topics of conversation at our home over the holiday weekend as the one who lives under our barn made its nightly appearance and even attacked a Christmas kissing ball hanging in a Quaking Aspen ten feet from the kitchen door.
In the scene before me at HRF, by the sight of the American Hemlock on the left, I knew porky had done much dining and I could see disturbance on the ground so I scanned the trees in hopes of spying him. I can use the masculine pronoun because it’s the males who occasionally tend to hang out in trees during the day.
A nipped twig dangling in a Striped Maple sapling smack dab in front of my face further attested to the porky’s occupancy of the area.
And under the tree–a display of tracks and scat all not completely covered by the snow that fell earlier in the day.
Porky had posted signs of its presence everywhere, including upon this American Beech. Can you read it?
In his usual hieroglyphics he left this message: I was here.
My heart sang when I saw the pattern of his tooth marks as the lower incisors scraped away at the bark to reach the cambium layer. If you look closely, you’ll begin to see a pattern of five or six scrapes at a time forming almost a triangular pattern. The end of each patch of scrapes is where the upper incisors held firm against the tree and the lower ones met them.
Because I once stood under these trees expounding about how porcupines are known to fall off branches to a group of people who from their location about fifteen feet away told me to be careful because there was one sitting above, I’ve learned to scan first before stepping under.
And to my utmost delight, I spied . . . not a porcupine, but a bird. A bird with a long striped tail.
Brain cramp. Which hawk could it be? Coopers? Goshawk? Rough-legged?
But wait. It’s feet weren’t talon-like as a hawk’s would be.
Feeling confident the porcupine wasn’t in the tree, I walked under and around for a better look and confirmed the identification. On Christmas Bird Counts in the past, I’ve always had brief glimpses of Ruffed Grouses as they explode from their snow roosts in such a manner that it causes my heart to quicken for a second. But here was one sitting in a tree!
Though I could have spent a couple of hours with the grouse, I had a task to complete and so eventually I ventured down to the wetland where nothing spectacular made itself known.
And on to Highland Lake. By then it was early afternoon, and again, it was more of the same to tally on the checklist.
A couple of hours later, I returned to Pondicherry Park, thinking I might make another discovery–and I did. By the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, a female Hairy Woodpecker must have sourced some Carpenter Ants because she vehemently excavated the tree.
Another great spot in this photo–do you see the robust Red Maple buds? Sometimes I think we forget that buds form in the summer and overwinter under waxy or hairy scales, depending upon their species.
It was in the park that I did finally spy a rare bird, and I couldn’t wait to report it to Mary. At first I wasn’t sure of the exact species, but once I looked up, I found it’s name almost immediately.
Snowy Pondicherry Loop Yellow Woodybird, complete with a sign and arrow showing others where to spot this special species not found anywhere else in the world.
With that, my day was done and it was time to complete the forms before turning them in to Mary. But . . . I must confess that back at Highland Research Forest, I did sneak back in to look for the Ruffed Grouse before I left there and an hour and a half later it was still in the tree, though starting to move about and coo a bit.
The snow is only about five or six inches deep, not enough for it to dive into and so I suspect the tree served as its winter roosting spot until conditions below improve. I have to say that this experience brought back memories of my time spent with ArGee in Lovell, a Ruffed Grouse a few friends and I met occasionally in 2018.
As the sun began to set upon Sweden Circle’s Christmas Bird Count 2021, I gave thanks for the opportunity to participate, and especially the great discovery of a porcupine that morphed into a bird!
Dedication: For my dear friend Faith on her birthday, especially since she once scanned photos of the very same trees at HRF in another blog I’d posted that included a porcupine, and struggled to see its form until I supplied close-ups. Happy Birthday, Faith!