Friday, October 21, 2022

Migratory birds exiting region for winter habitats

By Abby Wilson

In the last month, you may have noticed birds moving in groups or all together disappearing from the Lakes Region landscape.

Many migratory birds such as the Tree Swallow are
leaving the Lakes Region and Southern Maine this month
and headed south for the winter months. Many species
of migratory birds will return to Maine in the spring.
We all know what causes this. Migration is an annual event, surprising none of us each year. Animals all over the world move from one place to another to find better food or breeding resources. Many birds are exiting New England to seek favorable winter habitats. For some, this means heading south, toward warmer climates, windy offshore zones in open ocean waters are just the place that calls home.

Maine, and especially the Sebago Lake Region, is a spectacular place to view such migrations and many people spend hours searching for migrating birds in the sky, coastal habitat, and stopover sites (places where birds rest during tiresome migration). This is often a time to see birds that don’t live in Maine but that pass through from winter to summer habitats and vice versa.

“The songbirds we see migrating through Maine right now are coming down from the boreal forests to our north and will move into the southern United States, Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and some even to South America,” says Brad Woodward of Scarborough, an avid birder. “These birds are ultimately looking for better food sources since they have learned over generations that food can be scarce during North American winters.

He also says that the shorebirds on our coast are making astonishing journeys from their breeding grounds on the tundra above the Arctic Circle to wintering grounds as far as the tip of South America.

Some birds migrate thousands of miles each year. The animal with the longest migration in the world is the Arctic Tern which travels from pole to pole (Greenland to Antarctica) several times during its lifetime.

And birds need stopover sites to refuel during the journey.

According to Woodward, Maine is a vital stop for [birds] to feed and rest along the way.

“We will see them all in the spring in a more urgent movement north, needing to get to their breeding grounds in time to find mates, establish territories, nest and raise babies, all in the short summer season in the north before cold approaches and it's time to begin the cycle all over again,” he said.

In southern Maine in mid-October, one might see several songbirds including Gray Catbirds, Northern

Cardinal, Black-capped Chickadees, White-throated Sparrows, and Blue Jays. These birds are typically seen hopping among the understory or flitting from branch to branch in the canopies. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are often running up the trunks of trees and haphazardly pecking bark in search of insects. Train your eyes to search the skies as well, and you will notice other birds such as Crows, Canada Geese, and many birds of prey.

Many trained birders identify perhaps more than half of birds by ear, rather than by sight. It takes a lot of practice to notice that each call is distinguishable. Many people can identify the “cheeseburger” mating call of a chickadee, but it takes real skill to know that the Red-tailed hawk territory call coming from the canopy is actually a bluffing Blue Jay.

It is also important to remember that birds are not the only ones making a racket. Frogs, crickets, and chipmunks, all make noise for similar ways. Chipmunks alert others of an intruder, while insects and amphibians send out mating calls.

While walking along a woods trail, birders’ eyes and ears are keen to pick up characteristics that can help them separate one species from another. More often than not an avid birder can recognize an individual with confidence, but sometimes a birder can be taken aback by a rare species.

Some of us remember the Great Black Hawk that appeared in Maine a few years ago and eventually finalized its journey in Portland. Or perhaps the most recent spotting of a Eurasian species, the Stellar’s Sea Eagle, rings a bell. These two individuals are similar in that they are not native to the Eastern U.S. These birds are called vagrants and they appear far outside of their normal breeding, migrating, and feeding ranges for what is often a totally unknown reason.

Vagrants and native migrators visit stopover sites such as waterways, marshes, fields, and even backyards. It is important to keep these areas clean, clear, and safe. If you have a field near your house, or a water source, your property may be a stopover site. Make sure your large windows are not a collision risk by using reflective stickers and decals. If you have a house cat, keep it indoors. Birds face many perils during migration, and we can minimize some of these hazards and make their journey easier. <

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