Back River Bird Monitoring

I must admit, at first I wasn’t completely sold on the prospect of wading through a marsh at 4:00 a.m. Granted, I felt lucky to have the chance to conduct a bird monitoring survey with experienced biologists. I knew nothing about American Bitterns, the focal species of the survey, and I hadn’t been a part of the previous two surveys that had taken place in the last month. I felt like this was going to be a valuable experience, especially since it was exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I accepted a summer internship with KELT. But I still had a couple of questions, such as: 4:00 a.m.? In a marsh? Seriously? 

Although these thoughts were rattling around in my head as I pulled into the empty parking lot at the intersection of Route 1 and George Wright Road in the pitch black, I decided it would probably be best to avoid voicing them out loud to my superiors. After spending a couple of minutes alone in my car contemplating the series of decisions I’d made that had led to me interning in a marsh, the bright flash of a familiar car’s headlights informed me that Anna Christie-Carnicella, KELT’s contractor for land protection projects, had arrived. A moment later, a second car appeared and out stepped my second brave comrade: Kirstin Underwood, a wildlife biologist for the Gulf of Maine Coastal Program U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

After saying hello and donning headlamps, we crossed Route 1 and disappeared into the head-high cattails. I soon learned that each step through the marsh was an adventure in itself. Would my leg sink to the mid-calf? Or to the thigh? Or further? We slowly worked our way through the cattails, into deeper water, and over a small island before arriving at our first observation point. 

The procedure was simple enough. Kirstin played a twelve minute recording, the first six minutes of which passed in total silence while the second half consisted of a series of calls intended to elicit responses from birds in the area. During this period, we wrote down all of the birds we could identify either by sight or call, along with their approximate distance from where we were standing. Anna and Kirstin, expert birders both, spent the whole time observing and identifying birds. I, on the other hand, reached the limit of my birding abilities within the first couple of minutes and instead spent most of the time quietly taking in our surroundings. 

The dark of night had been replaced with a soft golden glow on the horizon which had begun to reflect off of the smooth surface of Back River Creek. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Small birds flew through the air before settling out of sight in the cattails. Bird calls, from near and far, filled the morning silence. Anna pointed out a solitary Great Blue Heron, far upstream and barely visible even with binoculars. Needless to say, my earlier doubts about coming to the marsh at such an early hour disappeared as I took in all of this natural beauty.

I later learned that at this first site the most common species over the course of the three surveys was the red-winged blackbird. Some of the other species heard or seen here included: Marsh Wren, Common Merganser, Double-crested Cormorant, American Woodcock, Tufted Titmouse, and Yellow Warbler.

A nest rests in the cattail marsh.

A nest rests in the cattail marsh.

After completing the first observation we made our way back through the cattails and battled a swarm of mosquitoes to reach the second monitoring site, which was also located on the upstream side of Route 1, but much closer to the road and in a thick cattail habitat. We repeated the same process as before as more sunlight started to flood the marsh. We didn’t see or hear nearly as many birds as site 1, which Kirsten said had been true for the other survey dates as well. The site’s proximity to the traffic of Route 1 made listening for bird calls challenging. This, combined with the lack of birds living in the thick cattails, might help explain the relatively low count. The most common species at site 2, like site 1, was the red-winged blackbird. Some of the other species included: Marsh Wren, Osprey, and Black-Capped Chickadee.

We then crossed Route 1 to reach the third and fourth sites, which were located on the mud flats of the downstream side, south of the road. The change in scenery from cattail marsh to mudflat brought with it a change in the type birds we could see. Here we spotted a handful of ospreys, including one which had caught a fish and was flying away from the marsh, presumably back towards its nest to eat breakfast. We also saw a very lost and confused grackle and a large number of Canada Geese. Overall, Canada Goose was the most common species on this side of Route 1, although we also observed Common Mergansers, Ospreys, Ring-billed Gulls, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Bald Eagles.

Kirstin Underwood scans the mudflats for birds.

Kirstin Underwood scans the mudflats for birds.

Navigating through the mudflats proved to be significantly more challenging than the cattails. The thick mud caused my waders to get stuck a couple of times, and at one point I lost balance and had no choice but to sink to my knees in a stance of defeat. After regaining my balance I then had to spend a not-insignificant amount of time shifting my weight back and forth on my legs as I tried, and failed repeatedly, to dislodge myself from the muck. Despite these trials and tribulations, we eventually escaped the mudflats having spent a wonderful couple of hours taking in the sights and sounds that only a marsh at dawn can offer. 

I later spoke with Kirsten about her main takeaways from the time she spent at Back River Creek. She said that she was surprised not to see or hear any of the focal species, American Bittern, considering that the marsh was an ideal habitat for the birds. However, she pointed out that the data gathered from the survey could be used in the future to see how bird populations might change as a result of any potential construction or improvement to that section of Route 1. In particular, she said she would expect species diversity to increase at site 2, which is immediately upstream from Route 1, especially if a raised road or larger culvert improves tidal flow and non-cattail vegetation is restored to the site. In this scenario, the marsh plants would become more diverse, so it could support a greater diversity of birds.

However, she also said that the highlight of the experience for her was similar to mine. “It was a treat to see the marsh wake up and hear how loud the birds were,” she said. “It’s not something I get to do very often any more. This is why people become biologists.”

The mudflats at dawn.

The mudflats at dawn.

Ely Spencer