Backyard Birder

Experiencing sights  and sounds in the field

After three indoor sessions with CDs learning songs of common backyard birds, last Saturday and Sunday, we took to the field for the real thing.

The first field trips for my spring birding-by-ear class were to one of the most “birdy” backyards around. Don and Lillian Stokes’s backyard along the Contoocook River in Hancock will be a hard act to follow.

As people arrived Saturday morning, we were surrounded by so much birdsong that I told the Bert and I story about Bert’s trip to the big city — New York, New York. It was his first trip out of Maine, and when he returned townspeople were bursting with curiosity. How’d it go?

“Well,” says Bert, “t’ tell you th’ truth, there was so much goin’ on at th’ depot, I never did get t’ see the ci-ty.”

Without moving from one spot, we heard birds we had studied in class — robin, ovenbird, phoebe and a distant common yellowthroat — as well as new birds. In addition, we were surrounded by apple and crabapple trees in full bloom.

Since moving to Hancock in 2001, Don and Lillian have landscaped for wildlife as well as for flower gardens featured on garden tours.

Their many published nature guides include landscaping for wildlife.

They’ll be at the Harris Center this Sunday at 3 p.m. to give a talk titled “Birding and Photography, The Best of Both Worlds” — with tips how to improve both skills as well as how the two can go hand in hand.

Their recently published “The New Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America; Eastern Region” (and “Western Region”) will be available for sale and signing.

A couple weeks ago Henry Walters visited Don and Lillian to talk about the Young Birders Club he is starting — assisted by donated Stokes birding field guides.

Henry saw a blue-gray gnatcatcher flitting about as gnatcatchers do.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher!! Don and Lillian leapt to attention. (That’s what I imagine happening.)

Don and Lillian’s backyard bird list, accumulated over the 12 years they have lived in Hancock, reached 199 species last August when a very uncommon dickcissel showed up. Anticipation of #200 has been high, especially now with spring migration and birds on the move.

Henry delivered #200 with a bird not often encountered this far north. Not only did he go home with donated Stokes bird guides; he also had a gift of well-aged, single-malt whiskey.

We didn’t encounter a blue-gray gnatcatcher on our two weekend field trips to Don and Lillian’s backyard despite Henry Walters joining the group as co-leader on Sunday.

As people arrived for that outing, I asked Henry if he’d seen any catbirds yet this spring.

He nodded towards one singing from a nearby crabapple, soon answered by another. And then a third showed up. Catbirds have a scratchy, chatty song similar to a blue-gray gnatcatcher’s with the volume turned higher.

In binoculars and then Henry’s and my scopes, all got a good view of catbirds among apple blossoms, pleasing birds with definite presence.

Once again we were in birding’s Grand Central Station just like Downeast Bert, feeling little need to explore further.

We did move on to many other encounters, and one of the many pleasures leading a field trip is hearing the exclamations of wonder when people see a bird through binoculars or scope.

I often use the word “intimacy” when writing about encounters in the natural world. Binoculars and scope bring nature close.

Lillian Stokes’s photographs do, too, as I hope you will see this Sunday at the Harris Center.

When we’re in the right place at the right time, we are rewarded by an intimate look at the wild world.

It’s a look that can take your breath away with a gasp, an audible “Wow!” or an “Ohmygod.”

Both days last weekend we had intimate looks at bobolinks and bluebirds, among many other treats.

As we listened for the male bobolink’s bubbling jumble of notes that sounds like the work of more than one singer, I passed along Thoreau’s quote of a Cape Cod boy who asked, “What makes he sing so sweet, Mama? Do he eat flowers?”

The Stokeses manage a broad field along the Contoocook for bobolinks.

They mow late after young have fledged to avoid the fatal attraction of bobolinks and other grassland species to lush hayfields that typically are mowed during nesting season.

In high courtship gear, bobolink males rise up together over a field, singing communally.

Saturday and Sunday we heard and saw dress rehearsal for the real show yet to come. Females haven’t arrived yet, and the field grass is too low to provide cover. A few bobolinks sang solos from edge trees, occasionally flying over the field in song.

It’s as hard to move on from bobolinks as it is from bluebirds. We spent a lot of time with a bluebird pair, occupants of one of many nestboxes at the Stokeses’ Bobolink Farm — named in honor of a Top 10 bird species.

I use the term “Top 10” a lot. It’s not to be taken literally.

This is the season for birding field trips.

Saturday is the annual New Hampshire Audubon Birdathon when birders of all skill levels go forth to tally as many species as possible, soliciting per-species donations that benefit Audubon sanctuaries.

Henry Walters will go “coast to coast” with his Young Birders Club—from the Connecticut River east to the real coast; Meade Cadot and I are leading a field trip up Goodhue Hill at Willard Pond Wildlife Sanctuary with pledges benefiting what Audubon considers its “jewel-in-the-crown” sanctuary. May there be many Wow and Ohmygod exclamations on both.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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