I heard it before I saw it, a sudden rush of air, followed by a blur of brown passing by with blinding speed.

The small raptor nearly grazed my hat as it swooped by, then landed a short distance away. The formerly silent surroundings suddenly erupted in a din of warning calls from dozens of tiny birds flitting about the underbrush. The sudden intrusion was certainly unexpected, though not uncommon.

Bowhunting can be like that, hours of inactivity punctuated by moments of excitement. Filling those empty hours can be trying unless you have a diversion. Fortunately, Mother Nature has a remedy.

Deer and squirrels aren’t the only creatures in the forest, and watching and identifying the feathered creatures that pay us an occasional visit while on stand is sometimes a welcome distraction.

Among the most common sightings from a fall tree stand are what birders sometimes refer to as mixed passerines. Most abundant in these small congregations of songbirds is the black-capped chickadee. With its black-and-white head and gray body, Maine’s state bird is easily recognizable to most hunters.

Another common component is the golden-crowned kinglet. Smaller, and mostly dull olive with white wing bars, the males show a thin orange-gold stripe on the top of their head that seems to glow in the low light of dusk and dawn. Another commoner is the tufted titmouse. Mostly gray with a light underside, it shows a buffy wash along the flanks. More distinctive is its cardinal-like crested head.


Then there are the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, the former being larger and white underneath while, as its name implies, the latter has a buffy breast and white eye stripe. Both are easily identified by behavior; they work their way down the trunks of trees searching for small invertebrates sequestered among crags in the bark. If you see a smaller, mostly brown bird going in the opposite direction – up – it’s most likely a brown creeper.

Woodpeckers are more solitary in nature. Most common are the downy and hairy, the former being smaller, and both showing a similar black and white plumage, with males bearing a small red patch on the back of their head.

Conversely, there’s no mistaking the pileated woodpecker, a large pterodactyl-like bird with a bright red crest.

No sit in the stand passes without a visit from the blue jay. Pay attention to the raucous scolding of these big blue and white passerines as they sometimes betray the passing of the larger, four-legged forest dwellers that we seek.

Raptors always provide a welcome bit of excitement for hunter and hunted. Among the most often cited are a group of hawks known as forest accipiters, including the smaller sharp-shinned, mid-sized Cooper’s and large goshawk. Their sharply pointed wings and long, rudder-like tails are well suited to swooping through the branches in pursuit of winged prey.

A round head, big brown eyes and familiar “who-cooks-for-you” call make the barred owl easily recognizable, while the ear tufts from which it gets its name and piercing yellow eyes help distinguish the great-horned owl. Also common but less often seen is the tiny saw-whet owl, which looks a bit like a miniature, yellow-eyed version of the barred.

Have I left any out? Sure. Crows, ravens and robins make up just a few of the nearly 300 species of birds that occur in Maine. Only a fraction of those remain year-round or regularly visit forested habitat, but that still leaves dozens of potential candidates you might see from your perch. A field guide and binoculars can be invaluable in helping you identify some of the others, and it’s a great way to pass the time when deer movement is slow. Just don’t get too distracted, because as soon as you let your guard down, old mossy horns will slip by behind you.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:


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