Nature is full of surprises. Just when you think you can count on something you find out you can’t. Such is the case at our small piece of the earth in Heath Massachusetts. For the past thirty years, during the warmer months, my wife, Maureen, and I have marveled at the sounds of daybreak that arise from the natural world. In particular, the symphony that the songbirds and woodpeckers create is music to the ears of any one lucky enough to encounter this audible delicacy. The songbirds provide the harmonious melody while the various woodpeckers and other wood excavating birds provide the rhythm section. Maureen, can often be found sitting on our deck at daybreak with a cup of coffee in her hands enjoying the concert. She always wears a sweet smile as she listens to the miraculous sounds of the natural world.
This spring, about two to three weeks into the song bird season, we noticed a distinct change. Not a bad change, in fact, a very good change. The orchestra had expanded by leaps and bounds. We both noted, one morning, that there were obvious improvements to the symphony. Sounds, notes, melodies, and even new beats could be heard coming from the forest and field edge. Clearly our world of early morning and late evening symphonies had grown exponentially better. Not only were we hearing the typical calls of robin, pewee, mourning warbler, mourning dove, cardinal, wood thrush, blue bird, and yellow throated vireo, but now we could hear chestnut sided warblers, black throated green warblers, black throated blue warblers, magnolia warblers, veery, red-eyed vireo, yellow throated vireo, scarlet tanager, and canada warbler, amongst others.
Being the curious type of person I am, particularly with regard to any item related to the natural world, I began to ponder how this sudden change came about. It wasn’t like our orchestra of birds had added one or two new members, but rather that it had added a whole new section of musicians. It was if an orchestra had previously been dominated by woodwind instruments, and had now added brass, and strings. The change was incredible. What event, or set of events, could change our four piece quartet to a full symphonic orchestra?
At first I began my thought process by what had changed on our land. After thinking about plant species diversity, water availability, human activity, and other potential impacts I could not find one single item that would lead to this type of increase in types of birds.
Logically, I next began to consider changes to habitat outside of our tiny 51 acres. It was here that I stumbled on the truth. First, on the property to the east a 5 or 6 acre clear cut had occurred the winter before last. This could contribute to lost habitat for some song birds, but could not account for the incredible change that had occurred. But his thought led me to think about other major forestry operations that had occurred within one or two miles of our property. Two years ago there had been a large clear cut along a nearby road. Only a few trees were left standing in an area of about fifty acres. Last winter a very large clear cut had taken place northeast of a power line corridor about a mile from our homestead. This clear cut covered about 100 acres. Logically birds returning this spring found their breeding habitat gone and had to find new, suitable, breeding and nesting territory. Many song birds are curious creatures in that they return, often thousands of miles, from their winter habitat to the exact location where they were born. Generations of birds had returned to these breeding locations, only to find that they were not there any longer. The area where our land is located is a much younger forest than those that were clear cut. The forest on our property, a mixed deciduous/coniferous forest, is about 70 years old, on average. It is also part of a very large, contiguous forest that covers thousands and thousands of acres with very little interruption by human activity. The forests that were clear cut, if my memory serves me correctly, had stands well over 100 years. Although birds have nested in our forest for the past 40 years, it takes about 30 years before a forest is old enough to attract a large contingent of different songbird species. The recently cleared areas had 70 years or more of nesting activity. It is likely that the forest (and cleared) areas surrounding our house were under populated leaving suitable room, for not only new birds, but also new bird species. It is interesting to note that we have also observed a decisive increase in raptors this year. This is likely related to the change in nearby forest habitat, as well.
Inserting a little local history, it must be remembered that our area was about 70% cleared land before the turn of the last century (the late 1800’s). It is now 80-85% forested. Prior to the forest regeneration our habitat was suitable to much different animal species, including birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Our area has undergone an ecological transformation in the last 100 years. It is likely more diverse, and from my point of view, more interesting. Keep in mind, some species, are in decline. Many people have noted decrease in white tailed deer populations which are likely due to habitat change, amongst other factors.
The change in ecological habitat in nearby areas has been an aesthetic windfall for my family. Our personal world is much richer as we share it with the beautiful music of our native bird populations. We can, for a moment each spring and summer morning, experience the world at peace with music that soothes the soul.
Originally written in July of 2005.