Ice has disappeared from the ponds and lakes of central Maine, and waterfowl are swooping in on the open water, where they’ll perform flashy displays to win the attention of a mate. These showy and often humorous displays are a sure sign of spring, of the dandelions and ducklings to come.
Yet most of us miss these signs. Wrapped up in our everyday lives, we don’t get the opportunity to seek out wildlife and watch their interesting behaviors. That’s where technology and devoted wildlife watchers can help.
Gail Smith, a photographer from Etna, spends time outdoors watching wildlife almost every day the sun is shining, and she shares her photographs and the occasional video on her “Gifts of Nature Photography” Facebook page at facebook.com/Gifts-of-Nature-Photography-246408165444347/.
Recently, Smith captured a video of four male hooded mergansers performing comical water dances as they chased a female hooded merganser in Corinna. She also took several photos of the activity.
“They were swimming around the female, puffing up their combs and sharing their heads,” Smith described. “And then they throw their head way back and let out a roar. It’s so cool.”
Smith shared her video on the popular Facebook page MAINE birds, which is where I came across it, and she kindly agreed to share it with me for this “signs of spring” blog.
In Maine, spring is an exciting time of year for wildlife watchers and photographers. The woods, waters, fields and wetlands come alive as migratory bird return and hibernating animals emerge from their dens. Some animals have exciting courtship displays, while others fight to establish territories. Nests are built and tiny critters are born.
The dance of the hooded mergansers is just one of several signs of springs Smith has noticed in the past week. She’s photographed a common grackle and red-winged blackbird — two species that spend the winter in the south — and her trail camera picked up video of a pregnant coyote.
“Fox, owls, coyote and squirrels, they’re all having babies,” Smith said.
Doug Hitchcox, a staff naturalist of the Maine Audubon, wrote about signs of spring for the Audubon website last March and says that the American woodcock is another early sign of spring in Maine.
“They’ll show up even when there can still be snow on the ground,” Hitchcox said of American woodcock. “They all leave in the winter, so when we do see them back, it’s a true sign.”
“Turkey vultures are a good one too,” he added. “People see them when they are just driving around, so that’s a good noticeable sign for people.”
What isn’t a true sign is the American robin, contrary to common belief. Robins are a migratory species, but only in response to food supply. If they can find sufficient food, they’ll stay in the area despite the cold. A reliable bird feeder and fruit-laden tree can keep a robin in Maine all winter, Hitchcox said.
Each spring, waterfowl and raptors (such as hawks and osprey) tend to arrive in Maine before the neotropical migrants such as warblers, tanagers and vireos, Hitchcox said.
“A lot of waterfowl migrate a lot earlier than our songbirds,” Hitchcox said. “So we’re already getting to see lots of things like the green-winged teal, northern pintail, American wigeon, and we’ve even spotted a Eurasian wigeon. Stuffs starting to move.”
Stationed at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Hitchcox expects to start seeing red-shouldered hawks returning to the state this week. Ospreys usually show up during the first week of April, he said, to raise their young in giant nests that are often perched atop telephone poles and old pilings.
“Just having birds singing again is such a nice sign of spring,” Hitchcox said. “Especially down in southern Maine, song sparrows tend to overwinter … but now they’re getting to be more abundant and they’re singing.”
To hear what a song sparrow sounds like, click here.