Adult sora
Adult sora
As July begins, the 2019 Maine nesting season reaches an approximate halfway point in some respects. Certain of the earliest nesters, such as American robins, have already fledged their first clutches and are gearing up for a second brood. Other species are at various stages of progress in their annual nesting cycles.

For the second year I’m involved with the Maine Bird Atlas project, a five-year volunteer study to assess the abundance and distribution of nesting species across the state. Using the study’s prescribed breeding codes, let’s trace some of my findings thus far this season. Evidence of breeding can fall into three categories: Possible, Probable or Confirmed Breeding. Several species of woodpeckers nest around my Warren neighborhood, including downy, hairy, yellow-bellied sapsucker and red-bellied. The red-bellied pair occupies a cavity nest in a tall willow tree near my house. Earlier in the season, I’d witnessed the pair spending increasing time together; this generated a Possible Breeding category = “In Appropriate Habitat.” Once they frequented the nest hole, I upgraded their status to Probable Breeding = “Visiting Probable Nest Site.” Then in late June the pair achieved Confirmed Breeding status under two different code designations = “Carrying Food” (to young) and “Recently Fledged Young.”

The timing of nesting activity is somewhat specific to each given species. Within a single species, however, we often see some variations in timing and nesting progress. Last week I discovered two separate pairs of cedar waxwings in different phases of nesting. One pair was already feeding young (FY), while the second pair was still building their nest (NB). The particulars of the nest building project were fascinating to watch. For apparent convenience sake, these waxwings had stockpiled a cluster of tinsel-length plastic strands on a branch adjacent to their partially completed nest. The busy pair consolidated natural grasses and plant fibers into the bourgeoning nest, with alternate placements of the plastic strands woven masterfully into final place.

Later I recorded a sora in a flooded abandoned gravel pit. Nicknamed “the marsh chicken,” soras are small secretive rails that inhabit shallow freshwater wetlands with emergent vegetation. The bird’s stubby yellow bill and black facial mask are standout features of an otherwise brownish body that is tough to detect within a stand of cattails. Hearing its distinctive descending whinny and whistled, high-pitched “ker-wheer” call notes, I eventually located an adult sora feeding amidst the thick cover. Shortly thereafter, I got a surprise: a black downy sora chick flushed from the same patch of cover. The fledgling chick fluttered weakly for about 50 feet before dropping back into protective vegetation. In this case, the confirming breeding code was “Recently Fledged Young.”

A pair of belted kingfishers had excavated a nesting burrow in the steep upper walls of this same gravel pit. Color-wise, kingfishers might be mistaken for a blue jay with an oversized shaggy head crest and heavy bill. The male kingfisher’s white underparts are bisected by a single bluish belly band. The belted kingfisher is one of the few bird species where the female is more colorful than the male. In a plumage reversal role, the female kingfisher’s additional broad rusty belly band helps to distinguish members of the pair.

While I scanned the nest burrow entrance, the kingfisher pair arrived at intervals. Each parent had brought a small fish as both mates broadcast their chattered rattling calls. Eventually the fishy meals were delivered inside the burrow to awaiting nestlings. You guessed it, this action was confirmed breeding behavior!

At this season, be on the lookout for adult birds feeding newly fledged nestlings. These activities often become more obvious by the peeping vocalizations and wing-quivering actions of the hungry young birds.