Really? Can birds count? It’s a curious thought and we impose so many of our attributes onto wildlife that we come to believe it all true and that they have feelings and abilities that match ours. And so on this day of the Sweden Circle Christmas Bird Count in western Maine, I set out with Dawn to seek numbers and answers.
The territories assigned to us are marked in red within the circle for we had the opportunity to explore Pondicherry Park in downtown Bridgton and LEA’s Highland Research Forest on foot, rather than driving along a bunch of roads.
Mere steps from where we’d parked we heard and then spotted Northern Cardinals. Not one, but two, then three, then four. Three being a male such as this one, with one female in the mix.
Below the cardinals were other birds that we heard first and shared a simultaneous thought, “I hear Wood Frogs.” Oops, that would be ducks. But the thing is that when we approach a vernal pool in the spring, and the frogs croak before they sense our trespass into their territory, they sound like ducks quacking.
We counted 45 Mallards who quacked and swam and preened and paused and dabbled and quacked some more. Her markings soon became important to us.
As did his. Notice the differences between the two from coloration of heads and bills and feathers. It’s been said that the male is much more handsome than the female. Maybe he is, but she offers her own sense of beauty and design. Again, pay attention to his markings.
Why? Because we noted this one hanging out for a while under some shrubs. And immediately, we realized that it was somehow different. Look at the color of its head–muted green and a hint of purple or mauve crowning its head. Like the female Mallard, there was an eyeline, but much more subtle in presence. We thought it might be a female, but like the male, the bill was bright yellow with a dark spot at the tip. Plus the overall plumage was different from either the female or male Mallard. And yet, it looked so similar.
The curled tail led me leaning more toward a male, but if you have information to clear up this identification, please don’t hesitate to share. We were just thrilled to be able to state definitively that this particular duck was a hybrid. And I’m still jazzed by the color hues of its head.
The point of it being a hybrid was driven home when the male Mallard and this other specimen shared the focal point of my camera. The hybrid even had a neck ring like the Mallard, though a bit creamier in color.
The Mallard collection in the brook below kept changing and what spooked them (other than us), I do not know, but fly they would and then land a wee bit further down the river before flying upstream again a few minutes later.
We eventually moved farther from the parking lot (maybe an hour later) and just after we’d made a turn on the trail, we saw a bird take flight. And a dog and its person move along the trail (not part of the dog trail, mind you, but people don’t seem to see the dog trail/no dog trail signs anymore). As it turned out, we gave a quiet thanks to the dog for it flushed out this bird and we were gifted the opportunity to get quite close to it. That opportunity made us realize that we probably often are in the presence of this owl, but its ability to not only fly in silence, but also perch in absolute silence, meant that it could hide from us–camouflaged as it was upon a tree limb. We felt like our day was done with that sighting, but we continued in the name of science for we were participating in an annual bird count for Maine Audubon.
A few hours and a few bird species later, we made our way back to the park entrance where this Mallard’s head color, accented by the sun as it was, captured my awe. But what was the duck doing? Quite possibly, it had tucked its bill into its feathers to retain heat. Bills obviously have no feathers, so they can loose a lot of heat. Think of it like warming your hands with hand warmers inside your mittens.
His Mrs. was doing the same nearby. Dawn asked if Mallards are monogamous. What I’ve learned in the hours since is that generally speaking they are. BUT . . . paired males are known to pursue females other than their mates.
Mixing it up, after lunch we moved on to Highland Research Forest where our first bird sighting was in the shape of . . . a Red Squirrel. Yes, a squirrel hide. Since it sat at our eye level, we knew the predator wasn’t a coyote, raccoon, or weasel, but rather an eagle, hawk, or owl. We really wanted to spy the perpetrator, and searched high and low with our binoculars, but came up empty handed.
Sadly, and much to our misunderstanding, as we moved along the trails, we spotted and/or heard few birds calling. But, much to our delight, we did find some sign, such as this, the excavating works of a Pileated Woodpecker.
In. the mix of wood chips below the tree, for the woodpecker consumes only a wee bit of bark in the process of seeking Carpenter Ants from the innermost paradise of a tree trunk, scat happens. And this offered a great opportunity for Dawn to make her first P.W. scat discoveries. Bingo, She found at least three displays upon the wood chips.
Pileated Woodpecker scat is most often coated in uric acid and contains the undigestible parts of the consumed ants. Of all the possible finds in the natural world–this is one of my favorite discoveries on any given day.
All that said, did I mention that much of our journey was beside water, my favorite place to be? And that over and over again we noted not only water levels from a few days ago when brooks and rivers overflowed in our region, and since have been enhanced by ice formations given frostier temperature? This sculpture brought to mind another with whom we shared today’s trails.
Do you see the match between the ice formation and tail feathers?
Our overall sums were low compared to years past, but the learnings we gained of this hybrid outnumbered what we tallied.
That said, when we heard an American Crow caw, our response was rather bland. Until . . . we looked at each other and Dawn said, “Crows count,” because of course they do as any bird does.
We departed ways about 3:30pm, leaving with questions about why numbers were so low. Oh, we counted chickadees, and nuthatches, and robins, and others, but overall, not so many species and not so many of said species.
Taking all of that into consideration and awaiting thoughts from others about the state of our winter birds in Maine, we were equally overjoyed that during today’s Christmas Bird Count we got us a Barred Owl. Can birds count? Certainly!
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