The bird flashed into my peripheral view, hit the office window with a thud, and dropped 10 feet to the ground. I looked up from the computer in time to see it plummet.
In the old days, I’d have left the bird for the cat. Now, as a fully enlightened and engaged birder, I rushed outside to pick up the tiny yellow warbler, still alive, much to my delight.
It barely fit in my fist as I carried it out to the backyard to show Linda. Then I sat the bird down in Lin’s flower garden on the granite bench, straightened its legs, and wished it well. Twenty minutes later, it was gone.
The satisfaction of seeing that empty bench was enormous. The birds and wild critters that share our space in Maine enrich our lives and make this a very special place.
Today, I celebrate private landowners who provide habitat for wildlife, from vernal pools for frogs to spruce wintering shelter for deer.
It is all about habitat. And as we’ve reduced the portion of our state budget that goes to natural resources from 4.3 percent of the budget to less than 2 percent, we’ve placed more and more of the habitat burden on private landowners.
It’s my pleasure these days to do a bit of writing for Maine Audubon, a sponsor of the outdoor news blog on my website. Recently, I wrote about Audubon’s leadership of a project to survey wild brook trout populations in 180 remote ponds (a collaboration with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Trout Unlimited).
After that blog entry appeared, I got several questions about why Maine’s leading birding organization was working on brook trout.
I answered those questions with this quote of Audubon’s executive director Ted Koffman from his 2007 column in the Bangor Daily News about chestnuts and trout: “The goal to restore the American chestnut tree to its rightful place in the forest may actually be less daunting than the prospect of restoring the Eastern brook trout range once it’s degraded and invaded.”
You see, it’s all about habitat. That’s what unites birders and brook trout anglers. And that’s why Maine Audubon has taken an interest in brook trout.
While brook trout habitat lies in the public domain, beneath the waters we all own, a lot of what we do on the land affects that habitat. So again, we look to private landowners to protect the quality of our lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams.
And the critters that depend on land-based habitat also find most of that habitat on private land. I purchased my Mount Vernon woodlot specifically to manage it for wildlife habitat and keep it open to hunting. I’ve got everything from a large vernal pool to a bog to a winter deeryard.
If you don’t own much land, you might not be aware that those of us who do pay a high price for keeping that land in good shape for the critters that live on it. The annual property taxes on my 150-acre woodlot — most of which is in a natural resource zone that limits timber harvesting and other activities — are $1,500. I pay another $1,200 for the 10 acres surrounding our house.
That’s a lot to pay for the occasional deer or turkey I harvest on my land. But honestly, I don’t know how to put a value on that beautiful yellow warbler.
Lin and I are privileged to own (and afford) our land, and we feel blessed by every creature on it (with the possible exception of those pesky vegetable-eating woodchucks). It’s important to learn about wildlife habitats, because some of them will surprise you. Perhaps you have an old dead tree on the edge of your houselot, an eyesore that you plan to remove soon. Don’t do it!
That dead tree provides important nesting cavities for birds and small mammals, and is filled with insects (food). The first time you spot a magnificent pileated woodpecker pounding on that dead tree, you will do everything you can to keep it standing.
The Departments of Conservation and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have lots of information to help private landowners manage habitat. One of the best programs is called “Be Woods Wise,” offered by the Maine Forest Service. It includes a video and printed material.
Google “Be Woods Wise” and you can access the information — and the kit — online.
Get familiar with what’s out there, thank all of your neighbors who own woodlots, and keep an eye out for those yellow warblers.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.