Henry David Thoreau once said: “The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever!”
Naturalists and recreationists celebrate every year when springtime returns to Maine. Spring brings the return of warm weather, deer come out of their wintering grounds, smaller animals wake from their torpor, and migratory birds return from their seasonal homes in the south. ‘Feathers over Freeport’ is the first birding festival of the year in Maine and takes place on the last weekend in April. This year Hannah Colbert, a MCC Community Leader hosted at Wofe’s Neck Woods State Park, had the opportunity to take part in Maine’s celebration of the return of our feathered neighbors at ‘Feathers Over Freeport.’
Feathers Over Freeport is held at Wolf’s Neck Woods and Bradbury Mountain State Parks, and is cosponsored by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, and Freeport Wild Bird Supply. Bradbury hosted Saturday’s events and Hannah was there for the day to help organize the event and run some of the activities.
First thing in the morning, Hannah joint-lead a children’s bird walk with Janet Mangione of Ferry Beech State Park. The walk took a group of children and their families around the trails next to the parking area. She and Janet did a good job of keeping the children engaged, often shifting the focus when the children started getting restless.
The kids were bright and enthusiastic; they often competed with each other to see who could answer a question the fastest. Using photos and plush bird toys, Hannah and Janet gave kids a look at any bird they didn’t get to see up close, and quizzed them on the names of birds using photographs. Live and recorded bird calls and wild nests in trees were also used as teaching aids for the crowd of youngsters.
After the tour, Hannah spent the rest of the day teaching kids about the materials at the bird table display. She said: “I like interpreting the bird table for the kids. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff over there: the eggs and the bird calls and the ’What’s It’ boxes.” A ‘What’s It’ box is frequently used for interpretive programs in Maine. It is a box that has a folding lid with a hole and a rubber curtain. Children then reach inside and try to guess what object they are feeling. The ‘What’s-It Boxes’ at Hannah’s table contained feathers, gummy worms, and a replica of an egg. There were other materials at the table including some props related to bird anatomy and biology, for instance a skull from an Osprey. “The skull is always popular.” Hannah said.
Park system staff were very busy organizing the weekend’s events. In addition to the activities and workshops, attendees were treated to free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and coffee from Birds & Beans®. Birds & Beans® is a company that produces coffee certified to be bird friendly by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. After co-leading the bird-walk with Hannah, Janet helped the program wherever she could. She engaged kids at the interpretive bird tables and served ice cream. This was Janet’s third or fourth year attending Feather’s Over Freeport. She was enthusiastic about the program and the smile never faded from her face the entire morning.
Derek and Jeanette Lovitch are the owners of Freeport Wild Bird Supply, and are also a pair of experienced birders. They have been leading Hawk watching programs at Bradbury for years. Derek has been bird watching for as long as he can remember, while Jeanette began just after graduating college while working as a biologist in Colorado. Feathers Over Freeport has its origins five years ago, when Derek was having a conversation with park management. “After the parks had an idea for a ‘bird day,’ I suggested we broaden the scope of the event and it just began to snowball from there.” Derek said. The couple leads and organizes workshops for hawk watching and bird walks at the event.
Fritz Applebee and Andy Hutchinson are the Park Managers of Bradbury Mountain and Wolfe’s Neck Woods, respectively. Andy, was in charge of organizing children’s activities and the volunteers and staff that help make the event happen. He had Teresa Torrance from the Maine Coastal Program helping the kids at the free-form arts table. Andy also commented that the program had “Gary Best, the Assistant Regional Supervisor for Southern Region Parks building bird houses. That’s pretty cool, helping kids build bird houses they can take home with them.”
Gary Best was pleased with the bird house activity: “It was a great way for the kids to learn about habitat for wildlife right in their back yard and improve [that] habitat.” The kids’ painting station was placed beside the station for building bird houses for the first time; it gave the kids the chance to paint the bird houses before bringing them home. Gary commented:“[It] was really rewarding, and I’m sure the kids had a great time too.”
Fritz revealed that the bird houses were his favorite activity. He also had encouraging words about the event’s attendance, which has grown since the festival started in 2010. “We have seen the activity pick up. There is a lot of interest in it this year. . . . I think we are having a very good turnout… Word is getting out.” He noted.
When speaking of plans for future years, Derek said he wished to continue growing the event. This was the first year that Leica Sport Optics had been involved in the event. They co-sponsored the hawk watch and displayed some of their products. “They have some ideas for next year as well, so we look forward to that, and always, adding some new and different events and workshops. Personally, I would like to explore the possibility of re-adding a Saturday evening Keynote presentation as we did in the first two years of Feathers over Freeport.”
Wind Over Wings
A very special event happened in the early afternoon on both the Saturday and Sunday of the festival. At 1 pm a crowd gathered around the picnic tables. Most of the programs attendants were present, holding cameras anxiously waiting for the event to begin. A presentation was being given by Wind Over Wings, a nonprofit wildlife education organization based in Dresden, Maine. Wind Over Wings houses and cares for birds with debilitating injuries. They run education programs and presentations with these birds as their Keynotes.
Each of the birds in Wind Over Wing’s program have had to overcome great personal hardships; most were severely injured due to human activity: Tansy the Eastern Screech Owl lost one of her eyes in a car collision; Aiden, the American Kestrel, suffered severe head trauma in 2012 and has a displaced lens in his left eye.
The two most impressive birds were Chaplin the Red-Tailed Hawk and Skywalker the Golden Eagle. The birds were much larger than their little companions. While Aiden and Tansy perched on their presenters fingers, Chaplin perched on the wrist of a gloved hand. Hope Douglas, President of Wind Over Wings, had to support her hand with a cane while holding Skywalker.
Chaplin and Skywalker share a similar history: Chaplin was accidently shot on a shooting range. and Skywalker was shot out of the sky by an unnamed poacher. Chaplin’s wing healed improperly and he is unable to fly more than a few feet at a time. Skywalker had to have his entire injured wing amputated and is unfortunately permanently unable to fly.
At first, SkyWalker was highly suspicious of people. During his recovery however, he began approaching the staff of Wind Over Wings and showing signs of curiosity. Over time he developed a special rapport with Hope Douglas. She demonstrated their personal connection by singing to Skywalker in front of the crowd and to everyone’s delight, Skywalker sang back. Every few verses of Hope’s song about friendship, Skywalker would open his beak and produce a soft Eagle cry. Hope commented on how Skywalker’s story tends to resonate with people. During a presentation at a Special Olympics event a child jumped up and exclaimed: “He’s just like me!”
The crowd was very energized and eagerly took pictures of the feathered visitors. One man from the audience commented that he had attended ‘Feathers Over Freeport’ before and that the presentation from Wind Over Wings was always his favorite part. The birds arrived and departed in wooden carrying cases with affixed brass name tags. Wind Over Wings was scheduled to present again on Sunday at Wolfe’s Neck Woods.
This Post Written and Prepared by Dylan Cookson: AmeriCorps Member and MCC Volunteer and Outreach Corrdinator
Contributions to made by:
- Hannah Colbert: AmeriCorps Member and MCC Environmental Steward with DEP Volunteer River Monitoring
- Gary Best: Assistant Regional Supervisor for Maine’s Southern Region Parks
- Fritz Applebee: Park Manager of Bradbury Mountain State Park
- Andy Hutchinson: Park Manager of Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park
- Derek and Jeanette Lovitch: Owners of Freeport Wild Bird Supply
- Janet Mangione: Park Ranger of Ferry Beech State Park
- Whitney Bushey: MCC/AmeriCorps Alumna who provided photographs for this post