Introduction to the Birds of Penquis Virtual Nature Center
Well over a hundred birds will summer, winter, or migrate through this area over the course of years. We will, however, keep this guide simple, listing only those birds that are most common. We will likely add to the list as time goes on. Keep checking.
The birds themselves are found in virtually all habitats within the center, including the air overhead. Don’t forget to listen for what might be occuring far above you. The only time you are likely to hear the redtailed hawk is when it is in the air.
The names given reflect current — or at least recent — decisions by the official bodies in charge of bird names. Scientific names are also given, but if you can’t pronounce them, don’t worry. You will not be tested.
The common loon (Gavia immer) is a black and white, long-necked football-sized waterbird that is found throughout cooler regions of the northern hemisphere. During the summer its varied and haunting calls can be heard from inland lakes. During the winter it is found in salt water as far south as the Gulf coast in North America. The common look (called diver in England) is often thought of as symbolic of the north woods. Loon populations declined frighteningly until conservation efforts, much of it by volunteers, helped the bird begin a slow recovery. Common loons nest very near the water. Their legs are set so far back on their bodies that they have trouble moving about on land. In the water, though, they are quick and graceful. They feed on fish that they catch by chasing them down. Loons can only take off from the water and may take as much as a quarter of a mile to get airborn. It is not uncommon for a loon to get caught by the sudden freeze of the body of water on which it is resting and be unable to take off. The beaver pond is the place to listen for loons on the center.
Listen to one of the loon’s calls (MIST)
The Canada goose (Branta canadensis) is about the size of a loon, that is, about the size and shape of a large football. It’s primary color scheme is black and white, and it has a very long neck. There are several races of the Canada goose, and most are migratory. The migratory birds nest in the far north and are seen in our area only in migration. The non migratory birds, the giant race, are found around ponds, lawns, and golf courses throughout the year. Their droppings can make a terrible mess, and they sometimes damage crops when their numbers grow large. Listen for these birds overhead in spring and fall.
The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is a long-necked, long-legged wading bird about the height of a 12-year-old child. The wingspan about matches the arm spread of a fairly tall man. They are gray, blue, and white. They fish the margins of lakes, ponds, rivers, and the sea. We find them here fairly frequently from spring until the water freezes. The voice is a harsh, croaking, snarling call. They sound as though they were constantly in a very bad mood. Well, maybe I’d be in a bad mood, too, if I had to wander around barefoot in cold water all day just to eat.
Sounds mad (DVG)
The mallard (Anas platyrhynchus) is the common duck of farms, ponds, parks, and puddles throughout a wide stretch of North America. Wild or feral mallards are sometimes found in spring, summer, or fall on the Penquis Nature Center beaver pond. Male mallards, or drakes, are quite colorful with greens, browns, reds, blues and whites blended into an attractive ensemble. They are about half the size of a Canada goose. Females, or hens, are non-descript brown and white ducks. The male gives a sort of squeaky chirp, while the female gives vent to the common quack that most people think of when they think of a duck’s voice. Seek open water, often salt, during the winter.
Both sexes are found in this recording (MIST)
The wood duck (Aix sponsa) if the forest duck of msot of eastern North America. It is found in flooded bogs, woodland swamps, beaver ponds, and along streams. The beaver pond is the place to look for it here. The mail has a shiny green and purple crest with a body decorated in blue, green, putple, and bronze, intermingled with black and white. Females are more brown, but still colorful. Wood ducks nest in cavitities in trees and in boxes put out for them by their human friends. The choice sites are those over water whereby they avoid nest predators. We have boxes up in various spots on our center, and occasionally the the peeping, whistling calls are heard in the wetter areas of the lowlands. Wood ducks are slightly smaller than mallards. Drakes and hens have different voices. Migrates.
A person might be excused for considering the herring gull (Larus argentatus) to be a flying garbage can. They are definate members of the ‘anything-vaguelly-organic-for-lunch-bunch’. As a result, the most common location for these white birds with gray upper surfaces and black wing tips is a garbage dump. They breed in colonies on islands in large lakes or on the coast and winter on the coast. Herring gulls are found throughout the world. Their voices are a sort of a sneering whine or sardonic laugh, leading more than one person to conclude that whatever they are saying would not be printable. Herring gulls are approximately the length of a man’s forearm, including the hand. Considerable seasonal movement.
Listen to the herring gull (MIST)
The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)is slightly larger than a human’s handspan, brown and white with black rings on the neck. Its name derives from its loud repetition of its call. Though technically a shorebird of the plover group, it is found in fields, airports, and lawns as well as shorelands. It is found from Canada to Mexico in the summer with some migration from northern areas in winter. Here it is found, generally in spring seasons, on the fields near the trail heads and in the open areas across the road.
Doesn’t it sound sort of like its name? (MIST)
The ruffed grouse is a medium sized forest bird, roundish, perhaps the length of a man’s forearm without the hand. It is related to chickens. It is mottled grayish or reddish brown and has a short crest and a long tail that it fans during courtship. The courtship ritual is performed on a hollow log where the rapid beats of the male’s wings creates a soft, hollow, booming sound. The most noticable sound made by these birds is the harsh, rattling rush of wings when they spring undetected from underfoot making the hiker think of heart attacks and restoring beverages. These birds are also called partridges.
The ‘mourning’ in the name, ‘Mourning Dove’ refers to the sad quality of its call. A primarily brown (with mixes of pink, black, and white) bird, the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)is the size of man’s hand, but with a long tail. It is found in a wide variety of habitats from southern Canada to Panama. Here it is most common in opening areas near the trail heads and around the feeders.
Doesn’t it sound sad? (MIST)
The Rock Dove (Columba livia), or Domestic Pigeon, is a Eurasian import found primarily in urban areas and farmlands. The color schemes are widely variable. Its voice is a gurgling cooo. These birds appear near the center as vagrants from nearby farms fairly frequently.
Familiar sound, isn’t it? (MIST)
The Redtailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is one of the commonest hawks of North America as far south as Panama. It is variably brown and white with a striking red tail in adults. A bird of the open country, the Redtail feeds primarily on small rodents. Its call is often described as a high, asthmatic scream. The birds wingspan is about the same as a 12-year-old child’s armspan. In our area it is found occasionally above the ridgetops or hunting over the fields or forest margins. Partial migrant.
Listen for this call (MIST)
The Barred Owl (Strix varia) is a tuftless, mottled gray-brown bird of deciduous forests from Canada to Central America. It’s call is often rendered as ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?’ Most northern birds don’t seem to say ‘you-all’, while southern birds do. Caution should be used in interpreting this bit of trivia. This bird is about the length of a man’s forearm including hand. Here it is found throughout our hardwood forests, especially the lowland hardwoods. This is the common owl most likely to call during the day.
Looking for a cook? (MIST)
The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is a large — longer than the forearm of a large man — brownish mottled owl with ear tufts. It ranges from tree-line in the north to Tierra del Fuego and is found in a wide variety of habitats. Its call is distinguished from that of other species by the distinctive cadence. Great Horned Owls eat a variety of birds (including other species of owl) and mammals, including, reportedly, skunks. Probably best not to accept dinner invitations from great horned owls. They are also reported to attack domestic pets.
Often heard during the winter (MIST)
This is a tiny, hand-sized owl mottled in brown and white. It is found widely in northern lattitudes and will sometimes use nest boxes made for it. It eats insects and small mammals. It gives a long, variable-tempo whistle, “whee-whee-wheewhee-whee”. It also makes a sound like a file rasping on metal. Listen for it around conifers.
The Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus)was named for its voice, though some think the call sounds more like, ‘Purple Rib.’ Be careful, though, about telling people you heard a purple rib singing. This large-headed night bird the size of a man’s hand is brownish in color and nests from Canada to Central America where it chases insects in leafy woodlands and wood margins. It winters from the gulf states southward. The accent on the first and last syllables of the often-repeated call distinguish it from near relative Chuck-will’s-widow which accents the middle syllables of its call.
How would you characterize the call? (MIST)
The belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) is a familiar bird of pool, lake and river. It perches on branches and dives to catch fish. It is a blue and white bird a bit larger than a man’s handspan with a big head and a crest. It has a long, pointed bill. The call is a dry, sputtering rattle. Migrates when water freezes.
The actual bird is about the size of a child’s thumb but has a longish tail and a very long bill. Males are red on the throat, white below, and green above. Females are brown-gray and white. The small size of the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) makes its migration quite remarkable. Most of these tiny birds fly across the Caribbean nonstop to their wintering grounds in Latin America. Hummingbirds wings beat so rapidly that they make a loud hum, quite loud in some species. The voice is a twittering somewhat like the tree swallow, but sharper and neither high over head nor fast moving. They don’t arrive here until after mud season. Quite sensible of them. They get most of their nourishment from flowers, being especially attracted to red. Some insects are eaten, too.
The Common Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a mottled yellow, black, red, and white bird with red or yellow under the wings. It is larger than hand-sized. Found from as far north as treeline in the summer, it migrates from these northerly areas in winter. Flickers are the woodpecker most likely to be found on the ground where they feed on ants. The call is like the Pileated Woodpeckers, but longer and less ringing. It also gives a sort of squeeky rendering of its name, flicker, flicker, flicker. Under the name, ‘Yellowhammer’ it is the state bird of Alabama.
Listen for it in spring and summer (MIST)
The pileated (Dendrocopus pileatus) is our biggest woodpecker. It is forearm and hand length with a longish neck and a red or partially red crest. It is found in deciduous woods where it bores distinctively rectangular holes in dead trees. Its call is like that of the flicker, but shorter and more ringing. It could be characterized as a series of whistled whoops, generally 2 to 5.
Two calling (long) (DVG)
The hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) is about the length of a man’s hand from wrist to fingertips. It is mottled in black and white, and the males have red patches on the back sides of the heads. This bird is common throughout our area and in much of North America. It’s common call is a sharp ‘peek’, and its song a dry rattle. Drumming on trees is used, like all woodpeckers, as a territorial announcement. During the winter hairy woodpeckers come readily to suet feeders.
Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are about the size of a child’s hand. They are black and white in an almost identical pattern with the much bigger hairy woodpecker. Males also have red at the back of the sides of their heads. These little woodpeckers are quite common and come readily to suet in the winter. Call is a dry ‘pik’. Song is a soft, dry rattle.
The eastern phoebe (Sayornis Phoebe) is the familiar bug-catching bird of mud season and early leaf out season. It is a handsized bird dressed in muted shades of gray and white. It nests on and around human habitation and is welcomed by those who understand just how many biting insects a family of phoebes can eat. The call is a rich note, and the song is a snort of sneezed version of ‘phoebe’. Migrates.
Phoebe voice (long)(MIST)
The tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) is about the size of a childs span. It is a graceful flying bird that catches insects on the wing over meadows, marshes, and bodies of water. Adults are glossy blue-green above and white below. Tree swallows arrive about as soon as phoebes in spring. They leave the state by the end of August. The voice is a cheerful twittering.
Heard overhead (MIST)
The barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) is about the size of the tree swallow, but adds a deeply forked swallow tail. Reddish or rusty and white underneath, it is blue above. It makes mud nests under the eaves of buildings. Migrates.
Often heard in flight (DVG)
A forearm-length, noisy, gregarious bird of woods and farmland, the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is a familiar figure from Canada to southern US. It feeds on just about anything making it unpopular with farmers whose crops it eats and with other birds whose eggs it eats. Crow family groups can make quite a racket when feeding or disturbed. They often locate owls for birders by mobbing them and raising cain.
A familiar sound (MIST)
A the raven (Corvus corax) is a larger version of the crow. It is more solitary than the crow and more likely to be found in deep woods, often coniferous woods. The voice is a deep croak with other less common vocalizations sometimes heard.
Noisy, agressive, and gregarious, the Bluejay (Cyanocitta cristata) is a crested blue, and white bird with a black collar. It is larger than a person’s hand. It is found from Canada to the gulf states where its variety of calls are familiar in forest and town. It often mimics hawks, scaring other birds from feeders. Bluejays eat just about anything organic. It has a wide variety of calls besides the hawk mimicry.
Listen to a couple of the calls (MIST)
The Black-capped Chickadee (Parus attricapillus) is a thumb-sized, omniverous black, white, and gray bird of woodlands and feeders of northern US and Canada. The familiar chickadee call is an alarm note. It’s song is a two note ‘fee-bee’. The other chickadees of the country have either higher pitched, harsher, or no chickadee calls. The black-capped chickadee is the state bird of Maine and Massachussetts. They are common here in all seasons.
Listen for them throughout (MIST)
The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is found in coniferous and mixed woods in Canada and northern US in the summer, wintering in the southeast. Some remaine here all year. It is a chubby bird not much larger than a man’s thumb and is found crawling down tree trunks headfirst in search of insects. Its calls are similar to (but more nasal than)those of the White-breasted Nuthatch with which it may be found at feeders or in mixed woods. They are not usually found in the same tree, though. As a rule of thumb, if you hear a red-breasted nuthatch in a tree, the tree is probably a conifer. If you hear a white-breasted nuthatch, the tree is probably a hardwood. Red-breasted nuthatches are partially migratory.
Listen for them in softwoods (MIST)
The white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is just slightly larger than the thumb-sized Red-breasted nuthatch. It is found in deciduous woods and mixed woods and at feeders. In mixed woods these birds generally stick to the hardwoods while their cousins stick to the softwoods.
Listen for them in hardwoods (long)(MIST)
The brown creeper (Certhia familiaris) is a brown and white streaked bird about the size of a smallish thumb. It has a long tail. This bird is much more common than believed because it is so conspicuous. Its voice seems to become softer as the listener becomes older. Creepers feed by moving up the trunks of trees and then flying down to the base of the next tree to repeat the process. A few are found here even in winter.
Listen closely (MIST)
The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is a slender, gray and white bird longer than a man’s hand. It is found from southern Canada to southern Mexico, though it is scattered in the northern part of its range. It is found in towns, farms, roadsides, and thickets where it eats fruits and insects. The mockingbird is the famous mimic of other birds. It usually repreats phrases in its song three or more times which distinguishes it from near relatives such as the Brown Thrasher and Catbird which use less repitition.
Quite variable (MIST)
The American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is a heavy-bodied gray bird with a brick-red breast. It is the length of a large man’s span. The Robin is found from Alaska and Canada to southern Mexico and winters, often in large flocks, generally south of Canada. It is found in urban and suburban areas, farmlands, and open forests. Look for it in those types of habitat on the center. The song is cheerful sounding, consisting of a succession of short phrases.
It is a familiar sound (MIST)
Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) is a chunky bird the length of a child’s hand. The male is blue on back and wings with a rusty throat and chest and white belly. Female is duller. Nests in cavaties or boxes put up by people. Bluebird numbers dwindled alarmingly until people began putting up the boxes. Now they seem to have recovered considerably. Found in open areas and wood margins. Sits on wires in hunched over position. Song sweet whistles. Migrates from our area.
Somewhat sad sounding (long)(MIST)
The Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) is a small handsized bird of coniferous or mixed woods from Alaska and Canada to western and northeastern US. It winters in southern US and southward. It is brown and white with a spotted breast and a reddish tail. The Hermit Thrush is often considered the best singer — at least to human ears — of all the birds. Each phrase of its song is clear and flutelike, variable in pitch. It is introduced by a single clear note. Other thrushes have similar, though distinctive songs.
Listen morning and evening (MIST)
The woodthrush (Catharus mustelina) is slightly larger than the hermit thrush and similarly colored except that it is redder on the head and back and more speckled underneath. This bird has a song marked by gutteral phrases, but otherwise similar in quality to the hermit thrush. It is found in deciduous woods. Migrates.
Listen for it here (MIST)
The veery (Catharus fuscus) is similar in size to the hermit thrush. It is red on the back and less speckled beneath. It is found in woodlands. The voice is rolling, descending phrases. It almost sounds as though the bird were being sucked down a whirlpool while singing. Migrates.
A distinctive song (long)(MIST)
Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus) is about the size of the hermit thrush. It is olive brown above and spotted on the breast. Swainson’s thrush is found primarily in dense conifers, but sometimes in other habitats. Maine Audubon’s Enjoying Maine Birds describes the voice as, “…a series of 5 or more rather faint, flute-like phrases which spiral upward… Call is an abrupt ‘whit’.” Migrates.
This hand-sized marsh and field bird has a loud, harsh, familiar voice. The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is heard from Canada to the West Indes. The males are black with red and yellow shoulder patches, females are brown and white with heavy streaking. Look for them in marshy swampy areas along the lower trails. Migrates.
Harsh, but entertaining (MIST)
The scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is about hand-sized. Males are red with black wings. Females are olive with darker wings. Sings hoarse, robin-like song, similar to rose-breasted grosbeak, from the tops of trees in deciduous or oak-pine forests. Migrates.
Spring and summer (MIST)
The Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) is a chubby, slow-moving olive and white bird the size of a child’s span. It is found in deciduous forests in eastern US and Canada. The bird winters in South America. The Red-eyed Vireo’s song is a long monotonous string of short phrases that seem to go on forever. It can be rendered as: ‘Im-a vireo. And-what are-you? Not-that I-really care-much as-long-as I-find bugs-on this-leaf…’ and on and on. They are common here in summer.
Listen in deciduous woods (MIST)
Yellow Warblers (Dendroica petechia) are just that — yellow. The males add red streaking beneath. Found eating insects in thickets, wetlands, and gardens throughout North America it is one of our most widely spread and well-known members of the Wood Warbler group. The song is rendered by some listeners as: ‘Sweet-sweet-sweet; I’m so sweet.’ It can be a good memory aid to put words like that to bird songs as long as you remember that what he is REALLY saying is ‘I’m the biggest, toughest yellow warbler in the world and you better keep out of my territory — except for you ladies, of course.’ Migrates.
Remember what he’s really saying (MIST)
Prairie warblers (Dendroica discolor) are found in thumb-sized (finger-length with tail) birds with olive above and black streaks on yellow below. Twitch tails almost constantly. Song is buzzy, ascending notes. Migrates.
Common in the right habitat (MIST)
Yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata) is slightly larger than the other warblers, except for the ovenbird. It is patterned in black and white with yellow at the wing bends, the top of the head, and the rump. Females are duller. Winters farther to mid-atlantic states, farther north than any other warbler in the east. Eats some fruit when no insects are available. Also known as butter-butt and butter-buns. Eastern race also called myrtle warbler, but nests in coniferous forests.
Soft warble, often fading (DVG)
The Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) is a thumb-sized yellow and brown bird with a distinctive black burglar’s mask in the males. Found in wet brushlands throughout most of North America in the summer, it winters in southern US and the West Indes. Its song is distinctive, consisting of a short repitition of two or three note phrases.
Common in low brushy areas (MIST)
The ovenbird is a generally brown-streaked bird a bit larger than thumb-size. It is found in the undergrowth of deciduous woods where it nests on the ground. The name comes from the shape of the nest which resembles an outdoor brick oven. The song is loud and ringing and is generally rendered as ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’. It could be as easily be rendered with the syllables reversed. The second syllable is accented. Migrates.
The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a crested, hand-sized red bird, very striking in the male. It is the state bird of seven different states. Cardinals are found in urban and suburban areas and margins of woodlands from southern Canada to the gulf states and across the south to Mexico and Central America. The song is a variable series of clear whistles, one common version being rendered by some listeners as; ‘birdy, birdy, birdy’. They are found here even in winter occasionally.
A very noticable song (MIST)
The house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) is a bit larger than thumb-size. It is streaked with brown with crown, breast, and rump red in the male. This seed-eating bird is a western import now established in our area, especially around feeders. In areas of high denisty, they are subject to disease.
Most often heard near human constructions (long)(MIST)
The purple finch (Carpocacus purpureus) is slightly larger than the closely related house finch. It is lighter in color and the red on the male is more widespread. This bird is typically found in conifers. Listen there for it’s soft, dry chip overhead.
This one is a native (long)(MIST)
The rose-breasted grosbeak is about the length of an adult hand. The male is black and white on top, white underneath with a red bib, and reddish and black under the wings. The female is brown and white striped. These birds have large, heavy, seed-crushing beaks. The song is like a robin with a few scratchy notes as though it had a sore throat. It is generally not as rich as the robin’s song. The chip note is sharp and squeaky, sounding somewhat like a rusty hinge. Listen for it in deciduous woods. Migrates.
The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) is between thumb-size and child’s hand-size. It is rusty and brown streaked above, gray beneath. It is found in open coniferous woods, farms, and gardens from Canada to Central America. It winters from southern US south. The song is a weak, dry trill that can in some cases be mistaken for other trilling birds such as Junco, Pine Warbler, or Swamp Sparrow. It is here from mud season until the leaves drop.
A dry trill
The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a brown and white streaked bird with a spot in the breast. The length of a child’s span, it is found in brushy areas and gardens throughout most of North America. The song usually starts with three or four sharp, musical notes, and is variable after that. We find them here sometimes even in winter.
A striking song
The American goldfinch is a thumb-sized bird done in varying shades of yellow, black, and white with the black being most striking on wings and cap in male. The females are duller and winter birds may hardly appear yellow at all. This is a late-breeding seed-eater. It’s call and song generally have a phrase like, ‘per-chick-or-ee’ somewhere within.
Frequently heard (long)(MIST)
image: Public Domain Files