Published March 21. 2014 4:00AM
When the March sun rises high above the horizon, the time for melting is at hand.
Now the great release begins; snowpacks to our north flow free and hurry south along our frigid waters. This is the season of mud, dirty ice, vernal pools and impassable roads.
Upon arriving at the Babcock Wildlife Area in Colchester I found the entrance road washed out. I rejoiced because where others would halt I would continue. Leaving the car behind, I waded through icy melt waters to enter the solitude created by the flood. The entire woodland was mine to roam freely in pursuit of birds. I came to search for early migrants, signs of the season about to unfold, and the great feelings a day of peace in the field can bring.
My first destination, a grove of large white pines, did not reveal the appropriately named pine warbler. But as I stood beneath the mighty pines my ears detected a faint yet familiar song coming from the pond. Listening carefully, it came to me, with a memory of warmer days, the identity of this distant song. It was from down by the bridge and I knew it by its name - phoebe.
I found the phoebe perched on a dead tree. It was a beautiful sight - the spring harbinger I was seeking. Eastern phoebes are one of the earliest migrants to arrive from the south. They don't migrate much further south than Texas.
This phoebe sang softly, "fee bee." Unlike other song birds, the eastern phoebe doesn't learn its song. In other words, they can be born deaf and sing their song perfectly. The entire repertoire is encoded into the bird's DNA.
For several minutes, I watched the handsome little phoebe sail out from his perch and fly back to it. It was catching insects in mid air in true flycatcher fashion. While on the perch, he bounced his tail, another behavior common to his kind.
Soon the phoebe flew off over the pond and out of sight, so I continued across the footbridge to meander through a myriad of paths. I could hear red-winged blackbirds and from some far off soggy meadow the calls of the American woodcock.
With the exception of the pine warbler, all of the usual early migrants were present and accounted for. I had spent the day in the peaceful solitude buffered from the outside world by the flooded road. And when the barred owls began hooting, I knew it was time to leave before the dusk grew to darkness.
Phoebes like to have a roof over their heads, therefore they choose sites such as window sills and eaves to build a nest. It is this preference that has brought phoebes and humans together for hundreds of years. So, relax if you are just a bit reluctant to venture across flooded roads, because in the next few weeks more will arrive and the phoebes will come to you. They will fill yards everywhere with their cheerful song letting all who hear it that spring is finally here.
Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author and he is available for presentations. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.