Backyard Birder

Bogsucker and the blues

Over the years, I have written about the Fremont conservation land in Peterborough a lot. I like to quote Janet Altobello, teacher-naturalist at the Harris Center who takes schoolchildren there.

My memory is that she said, “The Fremont never disappoints,” and her memory is that I said it.

No matter. We agree.

I went there Sunday at day’s end to check for displaying woodcocks. Friends had found none a few days before, but said they might have gone too early in the day.

Woodcock males do their energetic courtship dance in the fading light of dusk and then again when light begins to return at dawn.

I decided to head over in good light because “the Fremont never disappoints.”

Carl and I had put up some new bluebird nestboxes the day before, replacing ones that had done good service. Sarge Thibodeau makes boxes to specification for bluebirds, and I’ve gotten a good number from him over the years. Call him at 924-9078 and he will set you up.

There wasn’t much going on in the front field other than a song sparrow not living up to its name. Things got interesting where the trail dips down towards the beaver stream lowlands. Small birds moving around among the willows showed yellow that was richer than a goldfinch’s pale yellow. When they perched, a constant tail bobbing gave their identification away: palm warblers, one of the first warblers to return each spring.

Warbler species return in predictable order: the last to depart in fall are the first to return in spring. The early warblers don’t migrate as far as the neotropical warblers, for one reason, and for food they’re less dependent on insects than the long-distance neotropicals.

Carl and I encountered hundreds of palm warblers in Florida a month ago, along with a good number of pine warblers and yellow-rumped warblers — the other early returnees.

The palms passing through now on their way to nest in more northerly bogs are showing their bright breeding plumage. What a difference a month makes. A vibrant yellow front and rich brown cap have replaced the muted winter colors we saw in Florida.

As for bluebirds, the Fremont seldom disappoints. Male and female were moving back and forth between two nestboxes placed about 15 feet apart. That’s the protocol for nestbox placement: one for tree swallows and one for bluebirds. The swallows don’t mind bluebirds as close neighbors but will keep other swallows away.

Scanning the wet lowlands, I saw a beaver hunched over as it gnawed the bark off a small branch, and then two others, smaller, engrossed the same way. The debarked branches were bright yellow in the fading light. A fourth beaver swam in the shallow pond on beyond.

Fremont is a great place to see how beavers change a landscape. They have re-engineered the stream channel into a progression of pools created as they dammed their way upstream and down. Each of the old pools has an abandoned lodge at its edge.

Beavers don’t have great eyesight. You can observe them from a fairly close distance when they emerge from their lodge in the late afternoon to resume their busy work schedule.

Not too much later, woodcock males emerge from cover at field edge to begin their courtship display.

I’ve written down times the woodcocks got going on previous years in mid-April: 7:25 and 7:41 p.m. Last Sunday those times came and went without the “peent!” that announces a male woodcock.

Last year was the first year we didn’t have at least one male peenting away in our soggy back field. Woodcocks are a declining species — along with the field habitat they require.

It was good news when Carl came inside a few weeks ago after closing the chickens in for the night. “Peent” was all he needed to say. “Our” backyard male has been peenting away every night since.

At the Fremont, with hope fading, I heard the first peent note at 7:55 p.m. All is well with the world.

For 10 minutes the woodcock continued his warm-ups, a series of the raspy, nasal notes that are a male’s song. And then up and away he lifted, a small bat-like shape arcing higher and higher with wing-twittering sounds hard to hear over the spring peeper and wood frog chorus.

Sweet, sweet notes announce his pendulum swing back down to earth.

Silence. And the peent notes start up again, at least 50, before he launches skyward.

After 25 minutes and four repetitions of the “sky dance,” silence. His courtship display over, most likely he resumed probing wet soil for worms, his main food. Woodcocks earn their “bogsucker” nickname on a daily basis.

Between the frog chorus and dim light, I didn’t get a satisfying look or listen. Some years I’ve gotten close enough to hear the subtle hiccup that precedes each peent, seen the head bobs up with each hiccup, and the bird turns slowly to project his song to all directions.

I will return after the frog chorus fades as the little amphibians with the big voices return to their woodland homes and quiet.

Male woodcocks, ever hopeful, continue their courtship flights well into May and even June. A visit to Fremont on a warmer, quieter spring evening will bring many rewards.

Directions: Fremont conservation land is on the right, one-half mile up Old Jaffrey Road from Route 202 South at Noone Falls, Peterborough. The woodcock displays at field edge to the right of the trail as it begins to dip down towards the beaver stream. For the bluebirds, keep watch near the various nestbox pairs, as they seem to be shopping around.

Backyard Birder appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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