Going to the Birds: At the Water's Edge
By Tamia Nelson
June 12, 2012
We met only once, a long time ago. I never learned her name, but she said she was a city girl. On her first night in the mountains, sleep came slowly, and she rose early. I don't know if it was the novelty of camping in a lakeside cabin or just a lumpy mattress, but she was up before the sun, while tendrils of mist were still rising from the glass‑smooth surface of the lake. She pulled a sweater over her PJs — it's chilly in the hills at dawn, even in midsummer — and dashed out, pausing only to catch the screen door before it slammed shut. Then she sprinted for the shoreline.
I was there before her, however. In fact, I'd already been waiting for half an hour, camera in hand, hoping to chronicle the coming of the new day. The girl — a young woman, really, close to my own age — was beside herself with anxious anticipation, and her excitement mounted steadily as unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells constantly assailed her senses. The smoky skeins of mist over the water. The sweet perfume of balsam. The yodel of a distant loon. All of these were entirely new to her. We exchanged shy hellos, but before long we were chatting away in hushed voices, so as not to miss any note in the chorus of birdsong that grew stronger with every passing minute.
The girl was full of questions, and most of these had something to do with the swelling dawn chorus. Did I know what bird that was? I did. And that one? Yes, that one, too. And so it went, on and on, as new voices joined the choir and others left, till the sun had risen well above the trees and the smell of frying bacon issued from the little cabin kitchen. That's when we parted company. The girl went off to her breakfast. I resumed my photographic vigil.
It wasn't the first time I'd played the role of docent in the gallery of the woods. Having grown up in the company of trees, and having long sought to make the acquaintance of the birds who live in and around them, I was on speaking terms with many of the woodland choristers. But what had become second nature to me must have appeared almost a black art to the city girl. Where she heard only a cacophony of chirps and trills and whistles, I heard individual voices, each one as distinctive as it was distinct.
How about you? How well do you know the flighty creatures who come and go along the margins of the water? And if you're not yet on first name terms with them, why not spend a few minutes with me while I make some introductions?
Ready? Then let's begin.
We'll set the scene first. We're seated on the trunk of a balsam, uprooted from its perch on a high bank by a violent storm many years ago and then washed up in this sandy cove. The water in the little lake before us has the appearance of weak tea, and the shoreline is broken here and there by bedrock outcrops, all of them roughly polished by the passage of ancient glaciers. A mixed forest of spruce and balsam presses down to the water's edge in many places, while the site of an old burn has grown up in beech, maple, and birch. Elsewhere, towering white pines stand sentinel on rocky points. It's a common Canoe Country scene, in other words, and it's home to many bird species.
Night is giving way to dawn, and as the sky lightens in the east, a white‑throated sparrow greets the sun from the weedy shallows with his iconic song: Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody! (That's what he says in the States. In Canada, however, he praises his native land, instead: O Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!) And here he is:
If you missed the first link, you can hear him sing at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, and it's certainly worth a click, because his song is one of the most beautiful sounds of the North Woods. The white‑throat's white throat — as well as the striking white and black bands on his head and his yellow "eyebrows" (lores in ornithologist‑speak; only the males have them) — set him apart. This fine fellow has only recently returned from his winter home in the South, and he's hard at work collecting a hearty breakfast of insects and seeds. His companions are nearby. They'll build nests on the ground, where their variegated coloration stands them in very good stead, though the feral cats that cluster in colonies near many rural towns now take an ever‑increasing toll of nestlings. The white‑throat falls silent in mid‑summer, but you can still hear him skittering through the forest understory, where you'll see him scratting for tasty treats in the leaf litter beneath the trees.
If the white‑throated sparrow is one Canoe Country icon, the red‑winged blackbird is another. Our little lake's outlet nurtures a fertile wetland, where cattails grow thick among tussocks of their own making. And clinging to many of the those cattails you'll find a red‑wing. The bird pictured at the head of this column is a male. On returning from his southern wintering range — often before all the snow has melted from the ground in the North Woods — he makes his presence known with an emphatic KER‑KUH‑CHEEE! This song also serves as the avian equivalent of a Posted sign, warning competing males away from his chosen territory. The females are both less demonstrative and less gaudy. Not only do they lack the males' red epaulets, but their plumage is a muted, streaky brown. Don't be in a hurry to condemn their fashion sense, however. Their dowdy raiment is perfect camouflage amidst the cattails. While they sit on the nest, their mates stand guard above, giving the alarm in case of danger and banding together with other males, all old rivalries momentarily set aside, in order to put any would‑be predators to flight.
The red‑wing is an engaging fellow, to be sure, but he can't match the charm of another, smaller bird, the black‑capped chickadee. Taking his name from his cheery chick‑a‑dee‑dee‑dee call, he's a common sight in the North Woods, flitting tirelessly among the tall pines. (If you're paddling north of the border, however, you'll likely meet his cousin, the brown‑capped boreal chickadee.) And though he's diminutive, the chickadee is certainly no summer soldier. When the blustering blackbirds turn tail and follow the retreating sun south, the self‑effacing chickadee remains behind, braving the worst that General Winter can throw at him. Then, just as soon as the sun once again climbs above the equator, the woods resound with his triumphant feee‑beee, and he soon turns his attention to family life, sharing the burden of child‑rearing with his mate. Both birds — male and female look the same to human eyes — make endless sorties to and from their nest inside a deep cavity in a dead tree (now transformed into a very lively place, indeed!), returning with their beaks full of mayflies and other insects for their brood.
But as small as the chickadee is, there are other birds who are smaller still. Take the yellow‑rumped warbler. This little lady — she's in the first of the two photos below, above her mate — is also pursuing mayflies in the pines. She pauses every few minutes to utter a soft trill before darting away to snatch another hapless insect in midair.
Her mate, distinguished by his black cheeks and duskier breast, is back at the nest, waiting for his companion to bring something home for the kids' breakfast. But he's no stay‑at‑home dad. When Mom returns, he flies off on a hunt of his own. Keeping a hungry brood fed is a full‑time job for both parents.
As we crane our necks to follow the diminutive warbler's flight, we see another bird, scarcely bigger, on the trunk of a nearby pine. He's a red‑breasted nuthatch, and we soon hear his strident ANK‑ANK‑ANK. The photo below shows him feeding a choice morsel to his son, while his mate tends to the rest of their brood in a grass‑lined cavity in a nearby tree.
Though red‑breasted nuthatches are most often seen among conifers, their larger cousin, the white‑breasted nuthatch favors broadleaf woodlands. Here's a white‑breasted male. (The female has a lighter crown, a distinction also seen in red‑breasted nuthatches.)
Now, however, a sudden burst of activity in the shallows along the shoreline draws our attention away from the goings‑on in the forest. A bobbing bird, little larger than a robin, makes its appearance. We're fortunate. It's a spotted sandpiper, and they're not often seen. I have only three photos of sandpipers in my collection, and none is very good. This one is the best of the lot:
Still, you don't really need a good photo to know a spotted sandpiper when you see one. The characteristic teetering gait is unmistakable. Female sandpipers are the Germaine Greers of the avian world, by the way. Not only do they arrive on their breeding territories before the males, claiming and defending their patch against all comers, but each takes several mates, often leaving the tedious business of child‑rearing to the fathers. Their twittering call is as distinctive as their bobbing walk, with a more than passing resemblance to the choral song of the little frogs known as spring peepers.
And off she goes, flying low over the water, her staccato wingbeats looking for all the world as if she were dribbling a basketball in flight. It's a far cry from the steady, almost languid, progress of another bird of the water's edge: the great blue heron. He, too, stalks the shoreline shallows, but he's a much more commanding presence, standing as tall as a small child on his long, stilt‑like legs. The great blue is an eclectic eater, as well, dining indiscriminately on frogs, crawdads, and fish. (Once the lakes freeze over he heads south for warmer waters.) While he's usually a strong, silent type, when he does sound off, there's no mistaking his raspy fwank‑fwank‑fwank for anything else. Here he is, waiting patiently for breakfast to come to him:
From the tiny yellow‑rumped warbler to the towering great blue heron — we've certainly rung the changes in the dawn chorus, haven't we? But it's only a start. The wavering line where land and water meet is home to many species. There are hermit thrushes and wood thrushes, for example, two birds whose flute‑like songs I'm always confusing. And the veery, with his liquid, downward‑spiraling note. Elusive ovenbirds, their presence often signaled only by their teacher‑teacher‑teacher call. Not to mention hairy and downy woodpeckers whose sharp cries and short percussion tattoos resound throughout the woods, while yellow‑bellied sapsuckers drum nearby and kingfishers rattle from overhanging branches.
And of course there are ducks: the showy wood ducks with their panicky woo‑eek, woo‑eek, and the female mallards with their unmistakable quacks, to name only two. But not all the swimmers are ducks. There are also common loons to be seen. (But for how much longer?) Their ululating wail is another emblem of the North Woods. Now, however, they're riding low in the water, silently scanning the depths for their next fish dinner. Nor are these sleek divers the only avian anglers. We've already heard the rattle of a kingfisher, but if we look up, we'll spot a rather haphazard pile of sticks in the top of a tall pine high above the water. It's the nest of an osprey pair, whose CHEEP‑CHEEP‑CHEEP! rings out across the lake — a fitting note on which to end our morning's outing.
What about it? Have I whetted your appetite for more? Are you ready to join me in …
Going to the Birds?
Good. You won't need much. Patience, of course, and either binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens, or both. Plus a good guidebook or two (but don't take any guidebook as gospel; the birds don't read them, after all), and a notebook with pages large enough for quick sketches. An audio recorder will prove mighty useful, too, especially if it's paired with a sensitive directional mike. And a blind — or at least a set of clothing in subdued colors — will be invaluable.
All you have to do now is sit a spell, down by the water's edge. Study to be quiet, and pay close attention to every page in the book of the woods. Before long, you'll find yourself on first‑name terms with all the natives. But remember that you're a guest in their home. Don't get in anyone's way, and don't outstay your welcome. Be especially careful to give nests and their occupants a wide berth, and try not to disturb migratory birds who are "feeding up," either because they've just arrived or because they're preparing to leave. No one likes to begin a long journey on an empty stomach.
Why bother going to the birds? Well, if you've read this far, you've already answered that question for yourself. But there's another reward that may not have occurred to you. The day is sure to come when you'll find yourself helping some city girl (or city boy) make sense of the beautiful, bewildering world where woodlands meet waters. Take it from me, it's a very good feeling.
Lakes and rivers draw birds to their shores as surely as they attract paddlers. Do you want to know more about what you're seeing and hearing? Then take this opportunity to get acquainted. Chances are you already have the tools you'll need. Now all it takes is a little time. I've made a few introductions to help break the ice. The rest is up to you.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Air, Earth, and Water — Natural History for Paddlers"
- "The Water‑Borne Naturalist: Going to the Birds"
- "In the Midst of Death… The Lively World of Dead Trees"
- "The Paddling Naturalist: Life on the Edge"
- "Backcountry Photography: Flights of Fancy"
- "Sketching Animals and Birds"
- "A Chickadee Looks at His World"
- "The Last Chickadee"
- "It's Only Natural! Personal Voyages of Discovery"
And don't miss what might just be the last word in bird lore: Cornell University's online guide to 585 bird species, the aptly named All About Birds. It's free, too. So how can you go wrong?
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