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Otter Brook Preserve: A Noisy Spring

One of a series of articles exploring the natural and human history of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s protected land. With each of these articles comes a public event. On June 2 you are invited to the Grand Opening of the Otter Brook Preserve (click here for details).

By Nancy West

Bog and meadow on the southern loop (Nancy West photo)

Probably to my own betterment, Otter Brook Preserve has taken me into a world I’ve been skeptical about–the world of bird songs. I’ve scoffed at the possibility of identifying a bird by its song because I doubted my ability to do such a thing. My foray into this seemingly hostile territory (“hostile” for someone with no memory for sound) began with Ron Davis placing posts to guide visitors along fledgling trails before the Preserve opened. To write this piece, I needed to see the Preserve, and he was leading a workday to clear and mark trails. Ron is a steward of the Otter Brook Preserve for Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT). I arrived without gloves or shovel but with binoculars and a camera. Ron graciously dropped his shovel to guide me on the trails. As we set off, a bald eagle buzzed low right in front of us, and that set me on a voyage of discovery. My mission in this piece is to invite you along.

The 71-acre Preserve offers us all a chance to observe and capture contrasting environments. The Preserve borders a fresh-water stream, a rarity in Harpswell. The southern loop trail is sunny, with plentiful forest edges making spaces in which birds sing gloriously in the morning. It crosses land that was logged a few years ago. A short side path takes you to remnants of a causeway and beaver dam that overlook a bog, another sharp edge habitat rich in possibilities for birds–like the great blue heron that flew away from me.

Fringed polygala (Nancy West photo)

Lowbush blueberries (Nancy West photo)

The southern loop connects to a wooded northern loop with its path covered in soft evergreen needles and lovely wildflowers and low-bush blueberries along the way. On the northern loop, you see a pond dammed and rebuilt by eighth graders in 1957 after hurricanes breached the original dam. This northern trail has a short side trail to another overlook, at a bridge.

Along the northern loop I heard an unfamiliar bird call that made me think of a peremptory rendition of the frogs in a Rainier beer commercial from my childhood, and I laughed. (Whining mosquitoes sharpened the memory….) Serious birders can identify birds by their calls. I cannot; I am strictly a casual birdwatcher. I will not, for instance, set my alarm to wake at dawn for birds. However, they awoke me at 4:37 this morning. Eastern phoebes scratchily sang, “phoebe, phoebe, phoebe” ad infinitum. Phoebes have pretty straightforward calls…. Thanks to the combined forces of the Rainier Beer frog, this eastern phoebe seen at the northern loop overlook, and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, I’m pretty sure that I heard an alder flycatcher at the Preserve!

Eastern phoebe (Nancy West photo)

Here’s how it happened: I needed a picture of a bird. Saw the phoebe(?). Took a bunch of pictures instead of watching it carefully through binoculars. Went round and round with bird books trying to tell if it was a phoebe, a wood pee-wee, or a flycatcher. I settled on phoebe. Might well be wrong. If so, please don’t tell me. Along the way though, I listened to recordings of bird songs and identified the alder flycatcher. Bingo!! A new bird for me and the first I’ve identified by sound alone.

While birds abound at the Preserve, they are hard to see. The flycatcher’s song and a few other new ones make me consider learning to identify birds by song. It’s not to become a “Serious Birder” who voluntarily wakes before dawn. Instead, it’s to find out:

  • What bird species do we see and hear?
  • How does bird diversity at the fresh-water stream and pond of the Preserve compare to that along the Harpswell salt-water shore, say along Harpswell’s nearby Cliff Trail?
  • How do birds found along the previously logged southern loop compare to those of the northern loop, which appears to have been logged long ago?
  • How will bird and wildflower communities evolve along the southern loop in particular over time?

The questions can be addressed if we observe, collect data, and report the data so it can be curated and analyzed by scientists—“crowd sourcing” of scientific data. Citizen science projects like the two examples below do exactly that.

  1. eBird. In an international effort to document bird populations and biodiversity, you note where and when you find specific birds. The project collects 100 million sightings a year. We could use this to document bird sightings at the Preserve, thereby creating a data-rich legacy for future Mainers.
  2. Signs of the Seasons: a New England Phenology Program. You record changes in the seasons by observing common plants such as the Preserve’s lowbush blueberries, amphibians like the peepers that surely are present in the wetlands, and birds such as hummingbirds and robins. This project monitors climate change.

If arts and letters appeal more to you than data-driven natural science, consider keeping a nature journal based at the Preserve. You can draw and write and ponder and feel the pull and solace of nature by keeping a nature journal. While feeding your soul, your observations could leave an important qualitative record of flora and fauna. HHLT is embarking on a Community Nature Journaling Initiative, with events, guidance and inspiration. Click here for more details.

With the Preserve opening in June, we have an opportunity to note what we find, beginning at its inception and continuing in perpetuity. For my part, I promise as a former Brownie Girl Scout, that I will track the birds I see—and hear—at the Preserve and submit the data to eBird. Will you join me?

June 2018