Friday, July 6, 2012

A Second Day of Hog

Early on Monday morning, before even the earliest Song Sparrow had started singing, I and a few other birders headed out to explore Hog Island and record the early-morning birdsong. The evening before, Lang Elliot, sound recorder extraordinaire, had asked for six people who wanted to learn how to record birds using his high-tech recorders and parabolic microphones. Lots of people were excited... until they found out the group would be leaving at 4am!

As we headed out, a Great Blue Heron squawked as it flew close to shore--the first avian sound of the morning. As we headed deeper into the woods, we started to hear a few more birds. The first singers we came upon were Dark-eyed Juncos singing just off the path. These trills emanating from the red spruces gave us an opportunity to try out the recording equipment. The juncos kept switching between two song types, one that was very musical and another that sounded more mechanical. With recorders in hand, we were able to listen in on these birds as the went through their entire repertoire of song types. Satisfied and with good recordings, we moved on down the trail.

Me recording the dawn song of a Black-throated Green Warbler; photo by Tom Johnson

Before long, we detected the tinkling of a distant Winter Wren. He was probably back on the mainland, and his piercing song had traveled across the water, reaching our ears on Hog Island. It is amazing that a bird, a mere 4 inches in length, could sing loud enough that his song could travel that far. As we moved down the trail, we would stop every so often to listen and record various members of the dawn chorus. We were treated with the buzzy zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee and zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-zee of a Black-throated Green Warbler and the monotonous ink-ink-ink of a distant Red-breasted Nuthatch. A Blackburnian Warbler even showed up along the walk, but he never sang, much to the disappointment of the group!

By the time we wrapped up our bird recording and discussion, the other groups from the early morning bird walks (they slept-in until 5:30 or so) were returning from the woods. In sharing observations, it became clear that quite a few birds that sing around 4:30 become quiet after about an hour, as these later groups missed several species that we had heard singing. As Lang Elliot would say, the recording group had witnessed the "magical hour" of birdsong.

Upon hearing the breakfast bell, everyone piled into the dining room for another incredible meal. Breakfasts were excellent, with eggs, bacon, toast, granola, homemade yogurt, and fresh fruit.

Another delicious breakfast at Hog Island

While we were eating, we shared our "target" birds for the day, as different groups were headed to different places. The teen group was headed to the mainland, where we would bird two different habitats:

The first place we stopped was McCurdy Pond Road. This dirt road cuts through a mixed forest not far from a lake. Although we could not easily see the water, we could hear loons yodeling in the distance. As we started out, these loud cries were the only sign of birdlife that we heard, possibly a result of the dense cloud-cover overhead. As we wandered down the road, we began to hear birds singing. Ovenbirds and Red-eyed Vireos sang from the deciduous trees and a handful of Pine Warblers trilled from the canopies of the large pines. A stunning male Black-and-white Warbler came right out along the road to meet the group, providing better looks than many had ever had of this colorless songbird.

When we turned around, the we heard the reeep of a Great Crested Flycatcher, which we soon found perched on a snag just off the road. This large flycatcher sat for several minutes, allowing everyone to get nice views. His sulfur-colored belly and reddish wings stood out against the ominous gray sky behind him. As we were watching this bird, a Canada Warbler gave a quick warble in the brush below the flycatcher. With a bit of coaxing, the bird popped out of the woods right in front of the group. This male Canada Warbler, decked out in his black necklace and spectacles, posed on a low branch before zipping back into the dense vegetation.

As we were packing up to head back to the vans, Tom Johnson picked out a song way in the back of the boggy woods. Northern Waterthrush! With hardly any playback, the bird came towards us. He perched on a fairly open branch and sang as we watched him tilt his head back with each punctuated note. Many people had never seen this species, or any waterthrush for that matter, so Tom discussed the intricacies of waterthrush identification. This cooperative bird, sitting in the open, provided a good demonstration of all of the characteristic field marks of this species versus a Louisiana Waterthrush. After a little while, this bird disappeared back into the brush like the Canada.

Our next stop was a property that belongs to the Damariscotta River Association. As soon as I stepped out of the van, I could hear the bubbling songs of Bobolinks fluttering over the grassy fields. With a quick scan over the grass, I spotted several males flying and singing over the meadow in hopes of impressing the females that were silently perched on the grass blades below. Meanwhile, a Sora cackled from the marshy area at the base of the field. A minute later, two Soras were calling from the tall grasses and sedges. These two birds continued to cackle, as if laughing at the fact that we could not find them in the dense vegetation!

One of the coolest sightings of the day was a Black-billed Cuckoo that flew into the open past our group. Cuckoos are birds of brush and forests, so seeing one fly out in the open was a real treat. We (and especially Tom Johnson) were really excited about this. Then, the cuckoo flew back the other direction, this time with caterpillars in its mouth! Not a minute later, two Black-billed Cuckoos flew out of the woods, presumably gathering food for hungry nestlings!

The cuckoos weren't the only successful breeders on site. Twenty feet in front of the path sat a Cedar Waxwing on a nest! The nest was extremely hard to see, and the brown bird blended in perfectly with the grassy nest and the brush around it.

Despite the morning's weather forecast, the rain had held off! We had a successful morning of birding, so we headed back for lunch where we met up with the other groups and shared our morning sightings. After lunch, the teens reconvened and headed onto the boat for our first real trip out into Muscongus Bay. We were headed to Wreck Island, a small island about 4 miles off the shore where there is an active Great Blue Heron rookery. Not long after we left Hog Island, the skies opened up. We grabbed our raincoats, covered our cameras, but continued the journey to the island. Along the way, we scanned the rocks and horizon for birds and other wildlife.

Many of the small rocks in the bay were covered with Double-crested Cormorants, Common Eiders, and Harbor Seals.

Common Eiders, Double-crested Cormorants, and a Harbor Seal

Common Eiders with chicks and a Herring Gull on the nest

Mixed in with these more common species, we discovered a Great Cormorant, the larger, beefier, and rarer cousin of the Double-crested...

Great Cormorant

 ...a snazzy male Red-breasted Merganser...

male Red-breasted Merganser with eiders and a Double-crested Cormorant

...and a dull female Black Scoter that was loafing on the water with a raft of eiders.

female Black Scoter with an eider in the background

Even though the rain was pouring down and everyone was soaked, we were all in high spirits after finding three awesome birds.

When we got to the island, we moved into a small cod-fishing dory that was used to make the landing on the island. Transporting eight at a time, the rowboat took us to the shore where we hopped out and climbed up the slippery rocks into the woods. Brushing ferns and brambles out of the path, we made our way to a small opening where the giant heron nests, filled with youngsters, sat in the bare trees. These primitive birds, their gigantic nests build on silhouetted snags, and the fog rolling in and out gave a prehistoric feel to this experience. The sound of water droplets dripping off the large fern fronds covering the ground only added to this feeling.

Great Blue Heron flying to Wreck Island

Before long, we were on the boat again and headed back to Hog Island. Completely drenched, but very happy, we hopped off the Snow Goose and dried off before dinner.

The evening program was presented by Dr. Sara Morris, an incredible ornithologist, who, among other things, runs the Appledore Island Banding Station off the coast of Maine. Her presentation, entitled "Taking the Sexism Out of Birding," focused on the fact that many beginning birders are so focused on the brilliantly-colored male songbirds, that they simply ignore the females that can be tricky to identify. Her presentation challenged the audience to use what they already knew about identifying male birds to find similar, although often less obvious, field marks on the females. She had the whole audience surprised by this method of looking at female birds. Even experienced birders in the room noted that they had never really noticed how certain characteristics are so similar on males and females of the same species!

With everyone ready to go out and identify those female birds, we headed to the cabins to get ready for another full day of birding and ecology along the coast of Maine...


Julie Zickefoose said...

What a treat to read this detailed account of your field trips. I almost feel I've been on them. I wish I'd gone out with Lang, but that 4:30 start time is a bit of a deterrent. I tell myself I can always get a lesson when he comes to visit...
Very much looking forward to more of your Hog Island posts!

Joshua Potter said...

Hey Corey! Great to read your accounts of our week... I look forward to further installments. I hope you're able to make it over to Shaver's Creek for a visit sometime. Bird on!

Laurence Butler said...

What a cool adventure. It looks like this place combines great elements of woodland and coastal birding--super ideal.

That's some bonafide equipment there! did you pick up any satellite transmissions while recording???