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Listen carefully for songbirds; they're still here

Scarlet Tanager
Mark Faherty
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Scarlet Tanager

Last week I had the chance to do something I haven’t done in years — camping on the Cape. This “staycation” amounted to a single night, during the work week, in a state park 10 minutes from my house. My sister-in-law was camping there, so it gave us a low-stakes chance to introduce the kids, ages 4 and 2, to camping. It went better than expected in some ways, and about as you’d expect in others, but the kids loved it, which was a relief. It was also a relief to see that our breeding forest birds aren’t quite done for the season yet, so there’s still time to enjoy a chorus of our woodsy songsters.

Even so close to home, camping is a very different way to experience birds than in your yard. I never sleep well when camping, in part because my brain won’t stop listening for owls, even when asleep. Our campsite was nestled into big woods, big for the Cape anyway. Tall white pines and oaks punctuated with ponds and rich shrub swamps, where the highbush blueberries were attracting mixed flocks of hungry birds. We had our own Scarlet Tanager, a scarce breeder on the Outer Cape. This seemed to be an unpaired male, singing his buzzy, robin-like song endlessly with no mate or fledglings in site. Eventually, we had close looks overhead, as this lonely guy seemingly adopted us.

I heard my first owls a little after 4 a.m., a lusty chorus of up to five Great Horned Owls enjoying their voices in a perfectly still pre-dawn. I got up and spent some time listening, straining to get an accurate count, and listening for other species — Barred Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls have also been recorded here, but I had no such luck. A few minutes later, the first Hermit Thrush sang. If you don’t know this song, get to know it. If you don’t want to get up at 4 a.m., the good news is they like to sing at dusk as well, and most pine-oak woods around here have some. It’s hard to find descriptions of their song that don’t use the words “fluting” and “ethereal," and with good reason. It’s a glorious and characteristic song of our forested pine barrens.

Robins came next — I always think of them as the first to song, but they were late today. A few minutes later a Brown Creeper, likely nesting under a piece of bark on some dying tree, added its impossibly high song to the chorus. Others followed — Red-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee, Ovenbird, all common in these piney, shrubby woods.

After breakfast we made our way to a pond shore, more specifically a coastal plain pond shore, a specialty of the region. The birds are no different than at other ponds, but the sandy wet margins of these ponds are acidic and nutrient poor, so harbor plant and insect species hard to find elsewhere. It seems like years since I’ve properly explored a good one. Plymouth Gentian, a lovely, rose-pink, state protected species, was putting on a show. A few Rose Coreopsis, the only coreopsis native to Massachusetts, were there too.

Violet Dancer
Mark Faherty
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Violet Dancer

The kids and I alternated between splashing around in the pond and checking out bugs, like the stunning little damselfly known as the Violet Dancer, looking like a bright purple sewing needle with wings. A broad-winged Hawk glided by at one point, and some Eastern Kingbirds hawked insects close by, but birds were otherwise few, and would have just been a distraction to the plant and insect show anyway.

I like to talk about how quickly songbird season ends when we get to July, when birders switch into shorebird mode, but there’s still life left in these here woods. So if you haven’t yet, get yourself out there to enjoy at least one last dawn chorus in some lovely local forest, before this fading songbird summer passes by.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.