It’s a blackbird! It’s a plover! No, it’s a … wait, what is that?
If you’re even an occasional hiker, surely you’ve had a moment where you’ve heard a beautiful song or seen a colorful wing and wondered, what kind of bird is that? But birding is a difficult hobby to break into. Make the rookie mistake of trying to identify a seagull and you’ll be throwing your binoculars and bird book into the ocean (a book I borrowed has about 30 gull species, and each has different wardrobe variations. The herring gull, for instance, has 13 different feather coats depending on its age, sex and what season it is).
The Maine Audubon in Falmouth hosts weekly winter birding hikes to help birder-wannabes. Winter is a good time for people who want to learn to bird because there are fewer species around and no leaves on trees to hide them. The group meets up at 8 a.m. at the Audubon center at 20 Gilsland Farm Road (a 10-minute drive from Monument Square). It’s $8 for the two-hour walk.
A recent Thursday walk looked especially bleak for the birders. A single house finch — a chubby little guy, tawny except for a blushing breast and rosy head — sat 150 feet up in a tree. Aside from that, the bushes, orchard and patch of woods near the wildlife sanctuary were still. As our group entered a snow-and-ice-covered field, something bright fluttered in a tall tree.
“What is it?” Sue asked.
“McDonalds bag?” Nancy said.
“Definitely Hannaford,” Susan chirped.
Birds: 1. Bags: 1.
As the group approached an inlet of the Presumpscot River, a couple buffleheads bobbed around. They’re tiny little black ducks that look like they’re wearing powdered wigs, their heads are so puffy and round.
“They’re our winter friends,” Susan said. Like people, most birds flee Portland come December.
In nearby bushes, ever-common juncos flitted in the branches with an American tree sparrow, wearing its distinct little red feathered cap. Soon enough, goldfinches, Canada geese and a barracuda-billed red breasted merganser joined in and the birding hike was looking up. Until …
The group climbed an icy ridge to another part of the serene river. The binoculared birders scanned a floating flock of Canada geese, hoping a rarer bird might have joined them.
“He [expletive] winged it!”
Across the river, a goose flopped in the river as a hunting dog leapt in after it, dragging it to shore. The birders watched on from the wildlife sanctuary, horrified.
Truth be told it was like watching a train wreck — you want to turn away but the scene is so compellingly disturbing you can’t help yourself. Doug Hitchcox, our Maine Audubon guide, was equally concerned about the scene playing before him while leading the group of bird-lovers through the Audubon grounds. He answered some questions, talked about how much money hunters inject into conversation efforts and eventually moved the group on, pointing out odd chipmunk holes, deer-rubbing hot spots and meadow jumping mouse tracks.
Hitchcox is the Audubon’s naturalist, so he fields all the birding questions, but also adds tidbits about hibernation and how squirrels pick their picnic spots. These hikes, he said, are one of the best ways to get into birding. Trying to identify a bird by flipping through a book alone in the cold is difficult. Other birders can be a huge help while you’re trying to tell the difference between a sparrow and a junco (perhaps synonymous to the difference between a German shepherd and a golden retriever — obvious, if you know dogs).
The take away: Hiking in clean, cold Maine air while learning something new about the world is just about the perfect way to start any Thursday.
-All you need is binoculars (and even those aren’t a need, but they’re darn helpful.)
-Dress warm, obviously, but maybe even double up your wool socks and consider foot warmers. You’ll be out there for two hours.
-Can’t hurt to bring your ice cleats.
-Be prepared to walk 2-3 miles.
-It costs an $8 donation. Cash.