Tracking our summer birds south

By Kristen Lindquist | Feb 03, 2012
Photo by: Kristen Lindquist A Green Cay coot.

Remember that unusual raft of 600-plus coots that hung out on Chickawaukie Lake into early January, dwindling down to two, then none, as the lake finally froze over? I think we found them.

My husband and I were birding in Florida recently, and coots were everywhere — in canals, swamps, and ponds wherever we went. In fact, as our plane was touching down at Palm Beach International, we passed coots in a wet area alongside the runway. “Our coots!” I exclaimed, feeling as if we had tracked south the very birds we had seen so recently in our own community. It was almost like running into someone you know in an unexpected place, despite the fact that these weren’t the same individual birds. Their faces were still familiar.

We got up close and personal with many coots on our first birding stop of the trip, Green Cay Wetlands in Delray Beach, where a long boardwalk traverses the ponds and marshy areas. As you walk the loop, birds paddle around below you, mere feet away, unintimidated by all the nature lovers tromping past. And in the case of the coots, your proximity enables you to hear them as well as you can see them.

The vocalizations of coots include a wide range of quite expressive (and loud) grunting and clucking noises that aren’t as easy to hear when they’re floating in the middle of Chickawaukie. And perhaps the warmer climate — on that day it was at least 60 degrees warmer than back here in Maine — encouraged them to be more chatty. Rather than hanging out in one big, tight raft for protection (and warmth), these coots were relaxed, foraging in the reeds singly or in small groups, paddling alongside ducks, moorhens, herons, and gallinules. We understood, as we too felt more relaxed in the sun and warmth.

Having found one species that had so intrigued us during its long migration stopover this fall and winter, we wondered what other birds we might find from home. Ospreys were a constant anytime we were near water, but many of the birds we saw in Florida were undoubtedly year-round residents; some were already engaged in nest-building. Still, it made me smile to hear that familiar high-pitched chirping cry overhead, a sound that we normally only enjoy in spring and summer here in Maine.

Most of the herons and egrets were probably resident birds, too, but we nonetheless recognized with some delight the great blue heron, snowy egret, green heron, and others that we also associate with the wetlands of coastal Maine. And while we weren’t surprised to see dozens of little palm warblers flitting through stands of actual palm trees, we knew that these birds, like us, were on vacation — they nest in boreal forests, including the spruce bogs of Maine.

On Marco Island on the Gulf Coast, after driving through rampant over-development to reach a small beach, we found some of the shorebirds that migrate through Maine each fall. Birds we often see in Weskeag Marsh in South Thomaston, such as black-bellied plover and greater yellowlegs, crowded together on the tidal flats amid the more exotic reddish egrets and white ibises. However, a flock of what we first thought were semipalmated sandpipers, a bird we’ve seen by the thousands on its fall stopovers in Weskeag, turned out to be Western sandpipers, a bird that would be a quite unusual find in Weskeag. Apparently the semipalmated sandpipers winter further south, on the Caribbean islands. Next trip.

In Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, amid the ancient cypress trees bedecked with Spanish moss and epiphytes, we came across more birds of home: a handful of black-and-white warblers, a couple of northern parulas, and several common yellowthroats. These all nest in our neighborhood. How strange to spot a black-and-white warbler, a bird I usually see gleaning insects from the trunks of the maples in my backyard, scaling a massive cypress tree bedecked with strangler fig vines. We also ran into some other old friends: many blue-headed vireos, another local breeding bird that shows up frequently in my backyard, and one yellow-bellied sapsucker. Here in Maine most of our woodpeckers are year-round residents, but the sapsucker heads south each fall. There, amid the lush vegetation of the swamp, was a bird that could end up drumming holes in an old apple tree alongside the Ducktrap River come spring.

In an interesting reversal, we also came upon two species in Corkscrew that are common in Florida, but which I’d last seen as rarities on Monhegan Island here in Maine. Last spring, we spent a good hour or more tracking down a white-eyed vireo on Monhegan; in the swamp, they were right at home, all around us and singing. Two years ago I was among the excited throngs following a yellow-throated warbler around the island. In Corkscrew, the bright little bird is a regular, par for the course.

We were fortunate to observe many more of Florida’s stunning “regulars,” including the pink roseate spoonbill, gaudy painted bunting, squadrons of pelicans, and soaring magnificent frigatebirds. But it was (almost) as much fun to see common birds from home keeping company with alligators, palm trees, and orchids.

We’ve discovered in our travels that the Maine–Florida connection is a strong one. As we met people around the state, we experienced many “small world” revelations — the gallery owner who knows the artist living on Beech Hill, the woman who studied with a poet friend on Monhegan, a guy who was in the Marine Corps with a local restaurateur. But this connection was reinforced just as strongly by our interactions with the familiar birds we saw, the migrant “snow birds” like ourselves enjoying the warmer weather for a few months before returning to our northern yards and wetlands come spring.

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