No. 11: Birds and Sign

by Frank Izaguirre

Species: Spruce Grouse, Falcipennis canadensis

Question: What are your favorite experiences with bird sign?

Birding boreal forests and bogs in summer is an essential ABA Area experience: every bird is in full song and its brightest plumage of the year, the landscape is crisp and vibrant, and you never know when you’ll spot a moose. Most importantly, there are a ton of birds around, and many of them are significantly easier to see or hear at this time.

But…the bugs. The bugs are tough. They might even be worse than Florida mosquitoes! We persevere though, of course, summoning supernatural composure among the winged arthropod throngs while we methodically tick off Black-backed Woodpeckers, crossbills, Gray Jays, and a warbler in every tree crown and a flycatcher on every snag.

So it was when Adrienne and I visited northern Vermont in 2019. The area is actually called the Northeast Kingdom, a name evocative enough that it practically guarantees good birding, which turned out to be true.

We applied knowledge gleaned from previous boreal experience to rack up the specialties of this zone, including moose! That included a Black-backed Woodpecker nest, found with the aid of a young birder named Jacob we had combined forces with, and White-winged Crossbills, which were around in numbers.

But, after a healthy chunk of time in appropriate habitat, we were still down a Spruce Grouse, as a not-small-number of birders have doubtlessly also experienced.

As we went down a little side trail we hadn’t yet explored, Jacob pointed out something fascinating to me, something I didn’t know about.

“Dusting area! That’s a Spruce Grouse dusting area.”

Sure enough, there was a break in the lichen and moss-encrusted forest floor, a spot where the ground seemed disturbed, as if it were churned, clearly utilized in some fashion by some animal. It was the kind of natural history sign that was invisible one moment and then the next was the most obvious thing in the world. How could you miss it?

A Spruce Grouse dusting area in the boreal woods of Vermont.

Spruce Grouse use these dusting areas to get dust in their feathers and remove parasites like lice, a habit which sometimes draws them out of the forest and onto roads, which can be dangerous for them.

After our dusting area discovery, we felt as if we were close, perhaps even being watched by a grouse at that very moment. But we did not see a Spruce Grouse that day. But, thanks to our friend, we saw Spruce Grouse sign, and in many ways that was significantly more satisfying. We learned something about Spruce Grouse behavior, and, perhaps even more gratifyingly, we added a bit of knowledge that we can use to help us detect more Spruce Grouse in the future.

Detecting birds through sign is a good way to become a better birder. Sometimes the way we bird downplays the value and fun involved in learning about bird sign—we can’t count those birds or report them on our checklists (although you can put them on iNaturalist, as I did with the dusting area).

But you can get a lot better at knowing what’s around you, and you can learn a lot about the actual lives of birds: what they’re eating, where they can be found, and how they interact with the world around them. Bird sign is a great way to be creative in how we find and know about birds.

A Mourning Dove feather from my neighborhood.

Turkey tracks from this past summer, with what to me appear to be baby turkey tracks!

On this day, the sapsucker was present and busy creating even more holes, but even if he hadn’t been, I would’ve known this palm has been well loved by at least one sapsucker.

There are lots of interesting ways to detect birds by sign. Whether it’s a found feather (use this amazing resource), turkey tracks in moist ground, or a palm tree riddled with Yellow-bellied Sapsucker holes, recognizing bird sign helps us detect and know more about the birds around us.

What are your favorite experiences with bird sign?