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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Feathered Friending

Posted by | May 31, 2014

Barred Owl face

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 6/1/2014.

My son and I were simultaneously awakened at 4am this past Sunday by the call of the wild. At first we heard what sounded like a howl, but then as the fog of sleep cleared, the noise resolved into the distinct calls who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all.

“Did you hear that, boy?” I whispered across the dark bedroom we were sharing.

He whispered back: “Yes. Dad, at first I thought it was a wolf, but then I realized it was two barred owls.”

At six years old, he knows the difference, thanks to a Maine Audubon program. His training as a birder is underway.

If you’re not one of them, birders can seem like odd ducks. Case in point: on June 17, the Wells Reserve at Laudholm will host an evening of banjo music devoted to bird songs – not the ones they sing, but the songs we sing ABOUT them. But don’t be scared off by the warbling: it’s just part of the annual meeting of York County Audubon, our program partners who also lead bird walks at the Reserve every 2nd Saturday, starting June 14. Kinder, gentler, more curious people you will not meet.

There’s a reason thousands of birdwatchers flock to the salt marshes, woods, and beaches of Wells each year. Since the 1980s, at least 265 species of birds, including many rarities, have been reported on and adjacent to the Reserve’s lands and waters. Migration season is underway: every week brings new arrivals to our 2,250 acres, and birders’ spotting lists grow.

But why all this obsessive list making? They’re just birds, and not really very big ones, for the most part. To a beginner, they mostly look alike, and trying to differentiate them and their calls seems to require a lot of homework. What’s the point?

While I’m not officially a birder myself (yet), I am starting to see the appeal. I thought it was wonderful that my son, who has never heard a wolf howl, still jumped to that conclusion the other night before his rational mind identified the true origin of the call. His instinct was to associate the unknown with danger… and then he overrode that. My little guy received some data in the middle of the night, sifted it through his knowledge base, and, temporarily at least, conquered his fear of the dark with a sense of wonder. That’s birding’s attraction to me and my family: it is amateur science. Birding brings order to the chaos of nature and reveals to the astute observer a parallel civilization.

And doesn’t birding hold some of the most sought-after qualities we want in our children, and even ourselves? Attentiveness, patience, mindfulness, and appreciation are all cultivated by the simple act of listening to the outdoors and peering into the leaves. You really ought to try it, especially if you’re feeling a little too glued to the screen lately.

June Ficker holds a sparrow wing out for inspectionIt’s time to pick up the gentle art of birding. This coming Wednesday welcomes the return of June. June Ficker, that is. She’s the Wells Reserve’s resident bird bander and ornithology expert. Birding since the early 1960s, June is Cornell and Manomet-trained (the Ivy League of the bird world). She’s been running a bird banding station at the Reserve for 25 years every Wednesday morning, spring through fall, and it’s an operation to behold.

Birds fly into June’s nets, are safely removed by trained volunteers, and are put into small cotton bags to be brought back to the banding station under our big copper beech tree. There they are weighed, measured, banded, and released, often from the open palm of a wide-eyed child who happened to walk up to June’s station. More than 13,000 people have stopped by June’s station over the years. This summer, you could be one too. Free birds at the Wells Reserve: get ‘em while they’re caught.


Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, tooth and claw. More at

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