If you’re not from Maine, you assume that April means spring. Flowers, green leaf buds, birds singing, the works, right? HAH.
Some years, yes, a thaw will begin early and April will be lovely, but most of the time the ground is still frozen and the temperature hovers somewhere in the forties. That was the case when my plane landed just before midnight on a mid-April evening for a week long visit.
Not that that was going to stop us from birding! I had a full schedule of local places to check out, plus my parents and I had planned a trip north to Acadia National Park, stopping at different locations along the way.
Our first stop was Weskeag Marsh, about an hour and a half away from my childhood home. It was cold, a damp drizzle threatening to fall over us and the marsh grasses below. The wetlands were observable from above, at a small pull-out right next to the road itself. It wasn’t a beautiful way to start the trip, but marshes are like crack cocaine to birders, and nothing was going to stop me from getting out.
Most of the snow had melted, but the reeds remained a dull, brassy color, waving lazily in the spring breeze. A Great Egret showed white against the muted colors of the landscape, and with my binoculars I picked out a shorebird in the distance, though it was too far away to make any positive identification. I frowned; this was not what I pictured when I looked up all the dozens and dozens of species that had been recorded at the site. Was it not migration? The season we birders drool over the rest of the dang year?
“We might be too early for migration,” Mom mused as she scanned the open expanse. I didn’t want to think she was right, but I couldn’t deny the evidence. It was quite cold, and the birds might still be in the southeastern or mid-Atlantic regions, not all the way up to us in Maine. Was the trip a bust before it has even begun?
Many of my best birds happen upon me when I am least expecting anything interesting, heightening the drama of the actual sighting. We were about to head back to the car when a strange, dark silhouette swooped over our heads and landed gracefully in the marsh its black head poking up from between the brown grasses. Immediately my younger eyes took in the strange, elongated features, and I pointed it out to both Mom and Dad.
We zeroed in with binoculars and cameras. My mind had already jumped to the pages of my Sibley bird guide, mentally flipping through the options. The neck was long, the color almost black, and the bird was clearly sifting through the standing water for some kind of food. Could it be… could it be a Glossy Ibis?
As a rule any ibis is rare in Maine, which is generally way far north of their normal range. Yet every summer a few arrived and spent the warm months in Maine wetlands, much to the delight of anyone who came across one. My dad have never seen one before, and I quickly handed over the binoculars so he could catch a better glimpse. It wasn’t a life bird for me, but I am always equally excited when someone else sees a life bird, and when my dad grows animated over a bird sighting I know for sure it’s something cool!
As we were confirming that there was in fact a rare Glossy Ibis in front of us, probably trying not to freeze to death, a car pulled into the small lot on the side of the road, spitting sand and gravel as it slowly drew to a stop. I knew the person inside had to be one of three people: 1) A fellow birder come to survey the scene 2) A non-birder but curious individual 3) A non-birder who thought we were creepy for staring off into the distance with optical equipment. Trying to explain birding to a #2 individual is always a pleasure, for you never know if you are inspiring a future birder; but trying to defend watching avian species to a #3 intruder is an absolute nightmare. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“What are you doing?”
“Looking at birds.”
Blank stare: “Why?”
“Because they’re fun to look at.”
Even blanker stare: “Birds? Why?”
Frustration mounting: “They’re beautiful. They fly. They live in cool places. There’s always more to see…”
Veins begin popping, eyes twitching: “No, it’s actually really amazing because-”
“Sounds pretty dumb.”
Crying and/ r fury ensues.
Since I was too cold to get into a heated argument, I silently steeled myself.
A middle-aged woman popped out of her car, shielding her eyes against the not-bright-at-all sun. She was wearing sturdy pants, a long-sleeved sweater, and heavy vest, and her eyes searched the marsh like she had seen it a million times. “What have you got?”
Yes, I internally cried, we have a birder!
We pointed to the ibis, and she methodically unpacked a spotting scope from the trunk of her car. Even better, she was a birder with better equipment than me.
As she set up, we gleefully waited. After a long view, she revealed herself to be the best human being ever as she stepped aside, providing us the opportunity for observation from her viewfinder.
We had a Glossy Ibis all right. I watched the bird dip its long bill into the muck, searching for crustaceans or any other critters that may also be awake and alive in the cool temperatures. It would disappear for a while between the reeds before emerging yet again, giving us all good long looks. Why do birders love marshes? You absolutely never know what’s going to be there.