A Bird’s Tale

Drawn to the Marsh by an Unknown Force

Wed, 06/26/2024 - 11:15am

It may have been an unconscious reaction to last week’s excessive heat, but over the weekend we were drawn to local lakes and marshes to look for birds. It is hard for us to believe, but some of the places we visited were ones we have been birding at for more than 40 years!

One of these spots lies at the mouth of Wilson Stream where it flows into Annabessacook Lake in Monmouth, a location locally known as “the Waugan” and one we have written about in the past (https://www.boothbayregister.com/article/searching-old-bird-friend-edge/104781). Over the years we have seen and heard many fascinating birds here—American bitterns giving their low pumping calls; yellow-throated vireos singing their slow, burry songs; marsh wrens chattering; sora and Virginia rails calling from the cattails.

Many years have passed since the first time we visited this locale, and a number of things have changed (including the much higher level of traffic!), but, amazingly, most of the same bird species were still there. We did not find an American bittern or a sora but we did hear a distant yellow-throated vireo, marsh wrens, and several Virginia rails sounding from the marsh. And of course there were lots of other birds there, too, like hermit thrushes and veeries, and red-eyed and warbling vireos to name a few. A handsome great blue heron posed for us on a small tree on the edge of the marsh. Several families of wood ducks puttered along the edges near the woods.

We continued on to another favorite old birding haunt, the causeway at the south end of Cobbosseecontee Lake, a spot sometimes referred to locally as “the Purgatory.” Here, a narrow road crosses through the lake and marsh. A large area of cattail-dominated marsh is found on the south side of the road, and smaller pieces of marsh are found along the shores to the north in a large shallow bay. Decades ago, the local lake association used to draw the water down every fall, turning this bay into something that resembled a large coastal mudflat. And like a coastal mudflat, this mucky lakebed attracted shorebirds galore, including pectoral sandpipers in the hundreds at least a few times.  These days, in spring and fall, the bay often attracts a variety of ducks and other waterbirds.

We pulled off the busy road into a turnout just beyond the bridge and rolled down the windows. Immediately, right beside us erupted the machine-like chatter of a marsh wren from the cattails. Then another and another. On a little branch jutting over the water sat four newly fledged tree swallows. When a shiny blue-green backed adult tree swallow arrived, fluttering in front of them, all four began calling at once, their mouths agape as they waited to be fed.

We stepped out of the car (watching carefully for traffic) to get a little closer for a photo. That’s when  a tiny heron that had been hidden on the water’s edge flew up and away. It showed a black head and back and bold orangey patches in the wings. A least bittern! This is a rather rare species in Maine (they are more abundant in the southern U.S.) but a species that has been found at this same location in years past. According to eBird, least bitterns have been found at only three spots in Maine this year. This is in part because they are very secretive birds, often only identified by their low “coo-coo-coo” calls. We were lucky to catch even a glimpse of this beautiful bird.

Whatever it was that drew us to bird the marshes this weekend, excessive heat or nostalgia or something else, we were certainly rewarded. Hope you will be, too, on your next birding foray!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists. He is a coauthor of the seminal Birds of Mainebook and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular books, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).