The month of March, on our Wednesday morning bird walks, featured welcome signs of spring after a long cold winter, including warmer days and a surge in activity across a mostly brown landscape still void of green vegetation. The most vivid cue came from amphibians, where both wood frogs that have already laid eggs in vernal pools started quacking, and spring peepers common in many wetlands, started peeping – both species heard up to early evenings. While forest avian chatter was on the increase, the change in bird activity overall was rather quiet and subtle in the late March avian “interlude”.
Most winter waterfowl had departed north to nesting areas, with forest species dispersing to nesting areas locally, or shifting north while being replaced by breeders of their species from their southern wintering grounds. This was most obvious with robins, for which the giant winter flocks departed in favor of breeding pairs scattered about their coveted nesting territories.
Familiar backyard feeder species like Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees, began singing loudly, and Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers started calling and drumming away. The Barred Owls began calling during daylight more frequently as pairs approach the egg-laying period which is notoriously early for owls. The Red-winged Blackbirds that arrived in February increased in number and became accompanied by flocks of Brown-headed Cowbirds and Common Grackles, with giant flocks of “blackbird species” overtaking the feeders at any given hour. The one new arrival in the forest was the Eastern Phoebe, which arrives earlier than most songbirds and is known for nesting under eaves in sheds, barns, etc., along forest edges. While present all winter, the presence of Carolina Wrens increased as calls and song became more frequent, and additional breeders likely moved in.
Certain nocturnal birds became active from dusk through twilight, most notably the Barred Owls, for which a nesting pair lives in the vicinity of the Lloyd Center. Because they are active before dark, we can get away with an early evening prowl, and we also time the walks with celestial events, the equinox and full moon. For some owl prowls the conditions are unambiguous and the decision whether or not to postpone is relatively easy. This time around the prowls were tricky, as blustery conditions occurred during the day for both. The Equinox prowl was postponed, and we were rewarded with warmer, calmer conditions on the following night. For the Full Moon prowl, gale force winds subsided to a dead calm by the time the “Full Worm Moon” rose over Little River. Like last year, the Full Moon prowl occurred under a Supermoon, when the moon passes close to the sun and appears larger, with the group pausing to photograph the spectacle.
As for the owl activity, it was similar for both outings, as the Barred Owls made their presence known vocally, but remained mostly hidden with only a quick glimpse provided during the Equinox prowl, when an owl flew between cedar trees nearby in response to our recorded call. On both trips the owls called in a duet prior to the event under daylight, briefly responded to calls after dark, but went silent thereafter. While the “wise old owls” got the last laugh, both groups were treated to loud owl hoots, a phenomenon not frequently encountered and which advertised nature at its finest.
Another species in this night bird quest was one which is far more reliable to encounter, but tricky to chase due to the acrobatic dance males use to attract a mate. American Woodcocks, shorebirds which evolved inland habits, use open field-type habitats for display, but feed on earthworms (almost exclusively their diet) and nest under shrub cover, rarely using mature forest at all. These early successional habitats are in decline statewide, with management areas such as Noquochoke in Dartmouth crucial for the woodcock population to survive. Because woodcocks are a species of concern due to habitat loss, have a unique life cycle, and are also active at a relatively quiet time, they make for a perfect educational focus.
As with tradition, we first walked the property looking for other bird species sometimes active an hour before sunset and prior to the main event. The highlight was a nice look at both a Red-winged Blackbird and a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk sharing a tree and taking in the setting sun. We even tried briefly to attract owls, but as usual on this event, no takers. Back near the lot, we then settled in for whatever woodcock activity would be present. Unlike the owl prowls, there was no question that the weather was superb, on the evening of the warmest day of the week. In fact it was one of the warmest woodcock walks in some time. While the birds are also active on chilly nights and when there is snow cover, warmer nights are best and the birds didn’t disappoint.
Just before dark when the light got to preferred levels, the first “peent” was heard. Because some past walks including those at this location yielded only a couple birds, this was no prelude to the amount of activity we would witness. Soon enough, the first bird took flight, perfectly visible just after sunset when the sky to the
west hadn’t darkened. Airborne birds quickly vanished, but soon the twittering sound of the descent was heard, and the bird returned close to its launching pad. It wasn’t long before a frenzy of calling and flying birds buzzing by us occurred, and it seemed woodcocks were everywhere! One landed on the pathway, allowing great looks with a flashlight, the large eyes and long bill highly visible. For the superstitious, perhaps the lore of the upcoming “Full Worm Moon” was at work, bringing earthworms to the soil surface and further increasing woodcock activity. Whatever the case, the group received a rare glimpse of a fascinating, secretive bird species with a thriving sub-population at this location.
As we now approach mid-April, more birds have arrived as spring migration hits full stride. While the forest birds are yet to peak, shorebirds and waterbirds have pairs in place ready to nest, including species the Lloyd Center monitors. The piping plovers have returned to nesting sites on beaches, and all Osprey pairs are in place also ready to nest at their platforms. Join us on upcoming bird walks that will feature forest species, and stay tuned for updates about Ospreys at our four local platforms, and the nesting status of piping plovers at West Island and Bakers Beach!