A red phalarope

Spring brings subtle symphony



The sounds of spring can be pretty subtle, but I really enjoyed hearing a babbling brook on my property this week. I look forward now to the first wood frogs and peepers. We must never be too busy with other things not to hear and enjoy these wonderful sounds.

I know red-winged blackbirds are back, but as yet I have not heard their spring song in local wet areas. The males are such exhibitionists when they lean forward, spreading their wings just enough to see the red “epaulettes,” and call their “honk-er-ee!” If you are near a small pond or marshy area with cattails all about, watch and listen for these birds. The males arrive first and pick out territories they like, and there is much interaction between them. In a week or so, the females arrive, and they make the final decision where the nest will be. The colorful males declare their space loudly and take charge of any intruders.

Male red-winged blackbirds are black except for the bits of red and yellow on their shoulders. Their colors are best seen when they lean forward from their perches on cattails or small shrubs and loudly sing their bubbling song. These birds are seen all over this island. Sometimes they will join other birds at feeding areas. Females are heavily striped in brown, which helps them stay hidden on their nests.

As a rule, male birds are more brightly colored, but there are a few exceptions. One I especially like is the red phalarope female, for their breeding plumage is more colorful than the males. They are not often seen, for they are seabirds and only come to land for the four weeks when nesting. The rest of their lives are spent at sea. I particularly remember this bird, for one of them stopped on our small pond here in Bass Harbor a number of years ago. We saw and photographed this bird at the time, for it was an unusual visit. The sighting was after a storm and was most unusual. Not only is the female more colorful in this bird, but the male takes the main role sitting on the nest and taking care of the chicks.

As phaleropes fly out over the ocean, they feed on plankton and marine invertebrates. Whalers historically called them “whale birds,” for they followed the feeding whales wherever they went on the ocean. If you are out on the ocean this summer, watch for them. They breed in the far north.

I got word that snowy egrets have been seen in Scarborough Marsh to the south of us. It is quite possible then to have one or two appear in this area soon. It seems quite early for them with snow still coming down and snow quite plentiful in many Maine places. In the birding checklist for Acadia National Park, April is when may see them as they wander to the north. It does seem a bit early. Snowy egrets are quite easy to identify, for they are all white with yellow feet and a dark bill. Scarborough Marsh is a very popular and excellent place to see birds. You can find out more about it on the internet.

I’ve heard of a few sightings of peregrine falcons, for they are back and thinking about nesting. A few trails in the park will be closed to give them a little privacy. Be respectful of this.

Vultures are expected this month at any time. They are one of the four very large birds we see in our skies. A few identification tips will make it easy for you to know which of the large birds you are seeing from now on through the fall. Vultures are large, dark birds with 67-inch wingspreads. They hold their wide wings slightly tilted upwards at the ends. At the tips of the wings, it looks as if they are holding their “fingers” open. Watch them a bit, and you’ll also see them teeter a little from one side to the other. They like to soar about.

Eagles are very large as well, with 80-inch wingspreads, but they hold their wings straight out and, if adults, have white heads and tails. Young birds may be all brown or somewhat mottled. Great blue herons are very large birds; they have 72-inch wingspreads and hold their wings out to the sides. They fly with their long legs trailing behind. Ospreys also are large birds, with 83-inch wingspans. They fly along, holding their wings with a slight kink in them. They are excellent and very fast divers and can grab a fish from the water with great accuracy. Then when in the air, they fly off holding it with its head into the wind. Eagles are notorious for stealing whatever ospreys catch.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.