Christmas Bird Count 2021 and the Porcupine Morph

December 28, 2021, 7:13am

Good morning!

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.

Mary

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
  • Water
  • 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!

Happy Bird-day Bird Count

Established in 1900 by an officer of the Audubon Society, the intention of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations.

Our local count, known as the Sweden Circle CBC, typically takes place two days after Christmas, unless, of course it snows. Within several weeks prior to the event, organizer Jean Preis rallies volunteers and assigns sections within the circle to leaders and their assistant birders.

I had the good fortune to lead the southeastern section and so at 8am I headed off to begin searching for birds along the road, at backyard or front yard feeders, and just about anywhere within the assigned section. For the first 45 minutes I was alone as planned, and kept blaming my limited sightings on that fact, as well as the brisk morning temperature.

Other than the temp in the teens, I couldn’t say the weather was at fault for it wasn’t all that windy and there was nary a cloud in the sky.

By 9am, I was joined by the rest of my team, Maine Master Naturalist student Juli, and her oldest children, who are naturalists in their own right, Caleb and Ellie.

Juli took over the challenging task of driving, all the while searching for movement. Caleb, Ellie, and I had a much easier task–we just needed to search high and low and if we spotted something, to let Juli know in as gentle a manner as possible so we wouldn’t cause her to jam on the breaks.

At Plummer’s Landing on Long Lake, we got out of the vehicle, as would be our custom for the rest of the day. Down to the ice we walked, our eyes scanning the surrounding scene as we listened. The only sounds we heard–the wailing of the ice. If you’ve never heard that, it’s almost as good as birding! As for birds near the lake . . . not a one.

But there was a beautiful red maple tree by the landing that made for a perfect teaching moment–the clock face that helps birders locate a bird someone spies. I pointed to 12:00 at the top, then 3:00 to the right side, 6:00 at the bottom, and 9:00 to the left. Instantly, the kids caught on and for the rest of the day they were able to direct us–that is, when we did spy a bird.

Ever so slowly, we made our way along main roads and back roads and noticed few birds. In a way, I wasn’t surprised for my feeders have had only a few regular visitors this year. And when I’m in the woods, or even on the edge of a field, I’ve seldom seen or heard a bird since November when the snow fell. Before that, juncos were extremely common sights no matter where or how I traveled. Where have they gone?

Despite the lower than usual numbers, I was sure we would see something by the old Central Maine Power dam not far from the Stevens Brook Outlet. But . . . all we heard was the roar of the water.

And all we saw . . .

was water racing toward the lake and . . .

the dancing legs of icicle formations. That was OK because we enjoyed admiring them. Still, we wanted birds to count. To that point, our tally included a few chickadees and a couple of tufted titmice.

Onward we moved, toward the outlet of Stevens Brook into Long Lake where we were certain the open water would provide us with something worth reporting.

All was quite quiet, however, and we didn’t see any waterfowl to note. But then . . . the biggest find of our day let itself be known.

High up in a white pine above the opposite bank of the outlet, a bald eagle sat in wait. We practically danced in the icy parking lot–and knew that no matter what else we might see, we were golden with this discovery.

Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from the eagle, and continued on while looking left and right, up and down. At last, a front yard feeder yielded some more chickadees, a white breasted nuthatch and a hairy woodpecker. Things were picking up. Sorta.

And then as Juli drove down one back road, we spotted five crows in an unplowed driveway. They flew off when we paused, so we continued on down the road. Returning a few minutes later, we again spied the five crows in the same spot. And Caleb, who as a youth hunter has learned the ways of the woods from his dad, knew that where the crows were gathered there must be a carcass. He asked his mom to stop the vehicle while he crossed the road to check the area. Bingo! He encouraged us to join him. Just off the clearing he’d discovered a deer carcass. We weren’t certain how it had come to perish, or why its head was missing, though we had some thoughts on both, but we did notice that many had come to dine. If we’d been more into our tracking mode than our birding mode, we might have been able to write the first two chapters about the manner of death and loss of the head, but we had a different mission on this day.

Another body of water called our names. Last year, I’d seen robins and various other birds in a wetland associated with Woods Pond, so we jumped out at the town beach and stood still to listen and watch. Nada. The ice on the pond, however, was enticing. And though they didn’t have skates, Ellie and Caleb found the conditions to be much to their liking.

Even the clipboard with the field tally didn’t pose a problem as they slid to and fro across the frozen wonder.

Eventually we moved on and added a couple more chickadees to the list. And then we saw one who was not on the list and though he is native to this land, he’s not typically seen here in winter. So we filled out the Rare Bird Form for the Great Horned Owl Plastica species.

One of our final stops as a group was on what we fondly refer to as the Dump Road. At a swampy area, we thought for sure we’d have some luck. And we did. In the form of beaver works.

Peering across the road in search of birds near the open water, we noticed more beaver works.

And our luck turned to awe as we admired a beech tree that still stood despite its hourglass shape. Why hadn’t it fallen?

The lodge looked well maintained and we rejoiced to think that it was located close to town and yet we’d never spied it before. Because of the CBC, we’d been given the opportunity to get to know our town just a wee bit more intimately.

After the beaver lodge sighting, Juli and her kids headed home, and so did I . . . for a quick lunch break. And then I journeyed down several more roads, adding a few more dashes to the tally. I found more chickadees, a few more white-breasted nuthatches, and some mourning doves.

Toward the end of the day, I decided to return to the dam, but still . . . stillness in the bird world despite all the sound and movement.

And ice-encrusted needles that looked so featherlike.

By 4pm the CBC had drawn to a close and our offerings seemed so skimpy. I was almost embarrassed to turn in the form, only to discover that most of the other birders in the Sweden Circle had had a similar experience. The Denmark and Fryeburg sections had the most sightings to report, but all in all, the numbers were down significantly. A few of us gathered around Jean’s table to compute the final numbers and wonder why they were so low. Too cold in November? When the snow and cold snap occurred early, did the birds fly elsewhere? Was there not enough food this season? One among us has spent the last few weeks joining the CBC in various locations around Maine, and he said that our experience was not unique.

Despite that, Juli, Caleb, Ellie, and I finished up the day smiling because we had seen an eagle. And today was Juli’s birthday–so it was certainly a wonder-filled present for her on this year’s Christmas Bird Count. Happy Bird-day, Juli!

Counting Birds

In the name of citizen science, Kathy McGreavy and I ventured forth at 8am this morning as the temperature hovered just above zero.

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Our eyes were on the birds within view along a route outlined in orange. Up and down roads we journeyed, stopping periodically to jump out of the truck and focus our binoculars on our feathered friends and then keep track of them on the list provided. At the same time, other groups traveled different routes within the circle and also tallied their discoveries.

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Together, we saw blue jays, crows, robins, tufted titmice, a female cardinal, brown creeper, some chickadees, and lots of juncos. We also enjoyed driving down roads less traveled and reveled in the ice and snow-coated scenery before us.

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At noon, Kathy had to depart and so I headed home for a quick lunch before venturing out again to finish up our tour. And at Salmon Point boat launch I was rewarded with more robins.

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But my favorite spy of the day, two northern flickers at the outlet where Stevens Brook flows into Long Lake. I first spied one and then two on the trunk of a red maple. After a few minutes they flew below to dine on winterberries. But I wondered–northern flickers in December? They weren’t on the list, nor were they rare; just not typical winter visitors in western Maine.

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Seven and a half hours later, back at home, which was out of our part of the quadrant, a female downy woodpecker enjoyed some frozen suet. I couldn’t include it on the final report, but still . . .

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The same could be said for the white-throated sparrow that I frequently spot amongst the junco flock that partakes of our feeding station.

Participating in this citizen science project is great fun and I’m thankful it’s a winter tally for I can ID most of the species I see. Were it to occur in summer when all those warblers breed in this northern territory, my bird brain would be more challenged.

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Another benefit of said participation is the opportunity to visit places such as the old dam on Stevens Brook during the winter season.

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Because I was there, I saw tons of otter sign including numerous slides. A huge grin covered my face.

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And then, there was a certain rare sighting lower in the brook that drew my awe.

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We had a form to complete for rare finds. But . . . it was for rare bird finds. Would my northern flickers suffice? I wasn’t sure and so filled in the information to be on the safe side. But . . . that which I saw in the brook itself was probably rarer.

An ice disc.

According to Mary Holland’s recent post about such on her Naturally Curious blog: “An ice disc is a large disc of ice spinning in a river. It’s thought that this relatively rare natural phenomenon is likely caused by cold, dense air coming in contact with an eddy in a river, forming discs ranging anywhere from 3 to 650 feet in diameter.

While eddies contribute to the spinning, they are not the only cause. If they were, small discs would spin faster than big discs, and this is not the case. Discs of all sizes rotate at roughly the same rate. One would also expect that discs in still water, where there aren’t any eddies, wouldn’t start spinning, but they do.

The melting of the ice disc contributes to its spinning as well. When an ice disc starts to melt, the melted ice water is denser than the ice, and thus sinks below the disc. This movement causes the water to spin, which in turn spins the disc.”

Common and rare–and another fabulous day spent participating in the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count for 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calling All Birders

Each year, for the past 116 years, expert and novice birders have spread out across America between December 14 and January 5 to observe and catalog birds for the Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count.

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And so this morning, I ventured to Denmark (Maine, that is) to join a small group of fellow citizen scientists as we drove and walked around our assigned quadrant within a 15-mile circle.

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Kathy, Katie, Stan and Howie welcomed me with open arms despite the fact that I was a few minutes late and they were already on the road. When it comes to birding, I’m always a wee bit nervous because I know the winter species at my feeding station like Black-capped Chickadees, but am not so great with others. This group, however, likes to joke and laugh, thus making the day a pleasure even in the cold wind.

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We weren’t the only ones who felt the chill and thus the need to puff up and appear as if wearing a down-filled jacket. Everywhere it seemed, we saw Black-capped Chickadees and Blue Jays. It was interesting to note that a year ago our Blue Jay count was 16. Today’s count–bunches and bunches, making us wonder if the mast acorn crop had anything to do with their abundance.

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White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches also seemed plentiful, and often, when we stepped out of the car, their yanks greeted us.

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Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers made their presence known with a greeting of another kind.

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I did hope we’d see a Pileated Woodpecker. Their works were certainly evident all along our route.

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Some holes more recent than others.

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Other holes more productive than some.

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Instead, we saw Mourning Doves,

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American Goldfinches,

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and Northern Cardinals.

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For a few minutes we watched a male and female cardinal flit about in a shrub as they dined on its berries.

Here and there, we peered through our binoculars into people’s yards, especially if they had bird feeders. Thankfully we never heard sirens and no one yelled at us for stalking. In fact, one woman came out and said, “I know you are doing the Christmas Bird Count.” She went on to tell us about her observations, including an increase of Blue Jays as we’d noted, and dead swallows this past summer–perhaps due to the lack of insects.

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It wasn’t until the end of the day that we finally saw Turkeys.

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That surprised us given we all encounter them frequently, whether crossing a road or in the woods.

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Our favorite siting of the day–a Snow Bunting.

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I’d never seen one before so was thrilled with the opportunity.

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Snow Buntings are nicknamed Snowflakes for the behavior of a flock that swirls through the air and lands on a winter field. Today, only one, but actual snowflakes fell as we watched. And one was enough to make us happy.

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We saw other birds to add to our list. And . . . we encountered a couple of novelties including the Denmark Lizard, a rare species indeed.

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Our final view–an owl. OK, so you need to use your imagination. But with this group of birders, that was easy to do.

By 4:00pm, our time together was done for another year. And we were all grateful for the opportunity to participate in the bird census, break bread together at lunchtime and make more than enough Blue Jay jokes.

Prior to 1900, the tradition was to shoot birds for identification and fun, including a holiday hunt where the biggest pile won. The Christmas Bird Count was first proposed by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman after the realization that the bird population was declining.

Because of Mr. Chapman, we spent a delightful day participating in a census that helps assess the bird population and guide conservation efforts.

We’d heeded the call.