May 102019
 

Knowing the songs of common birds opens the door to greater enjoyment of the natural world

May’s explosion of leaves will soon draw a green veil upon our neighbourhoods and woodlands. As beautiful and welcome as the burst of foliage may be, it complicates seeing and appreciating the many bird species that make spring such a wonderful season. To be fully aware of all the avian diversity that surrounds us, we therefore need to depend on our ears as much as our eyes. Knowing the songs and calls also means you don’t have to spend a lot of time and energy tracking down the mystery songsters.

With practice, nearly all birds can be identified by their vocalizations, namely their songs and calls. The distinction between songs and calls can be complicated but, in general, songs are longer and more complex and are associated with courtship and mating. They are usually heard only in the spring and early summer. Calls tend to be short – sometimes only one or two notes – and serve as alarms or keeping members of a flock together. A good example is the Black-capped Chickadee. It makes its “chick-a-dee-dee” call all year round, but usually only whistles its “Hi-cutie” song in late winter and spring.

Describing songs
Learning and describing bird song involves some special vocabulary.  For example, when talking about the quality or tone of the song, we often use words like clear, harsh, liquid, flute-like, trilled, or buzzy. A clear song is something you could whistle (e.g., American Robin, Northern Cardinal); a harsh song has scratchy notes (e.g., Common Grackle, House Finch); a flute-like song suggests a musical instrument (e.g., Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush); a trilled song contains numerous notes in a row and too fast to count (e.g., Chipping Sparrow, Pine Warbler); while a buzzy song has a bee-like quality (e.g., Savannah Sparrow, many warblers).

Songs also differ in pitch. Most birds sing in a characteristic range, with smaller birds typically having higher voices than larger birds. The pitch might rise as the bird sings (e.g., Prairie Warbler), fall (e.g., Veery, Northern Waterthrush), remain steady  (e.g., Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco), or be variable (e.g., Song Sparrow).

Some birds characteristically repeat syllables or phrases. Brown Thrashers and Indigo Buntings typically repeat twice before changing to a new syllable. Often, bird songs can also be broken down into sections. A section begins whenever there is a dramatic change in pitch or speed. The Song Sparrow has many sections in its song, as does the European Starling. Birds also sing with different rhythms. House Wrens pour out their song in a hurry, while White-throated Sparrows opt for a leisurely pace. There is no doubt that some species sound similar.  However, when you take into consideration the context of the song – habitat, time of year and the characteristics of the song itself – the choice usually comes down to only a handful of species.

Memory aids

Memorizing bird song as pure sound is difficult. For me at least, it is much easier to convert the songs to a mnemonic, which is simply any device that serves as a memory aid. Sometimes, it’s useful to find your own, personal comparison or memory aid for remembering a song.

The following is a list of mnemonics that birders have been using for years. I have grouped the birds by the habitat in which they are most typically found: MH (many habitats), U (urban), W (wetlands), FF (fields and farmland), F (forests)

American Robin (MH):  CHEERILY-CHEERY-CHEERILY-CHEER… – a series of short, clear, musical whistles, rising and falling in pitch. Robins are especially vocal just before dawn.

American Goldfinch (MH):  PO-TA-TO-CHIP! – this distinctive call is given on the up rise of the goldfinch’s roller-coaster flight.

Black-capped Chickadee (MH):  HI-CUTY or SPRING-IS-HERE – a clear, two or three note whistle. The last note drops in pitch is often double-pulsed.

Blue Jay (MH): QUEEDLE-QUEEDLE – a pleasant, musical song, given in a quick burst. Listen also for “squeaky wheelbarrow” sounds and the jay’s harsh, descending “jaaaay” scream.

Cedar Waxwing (MH):  SREEEE-SREEEE-SREEEE – an extremely high-pitched, hissy, weak, non-musical whistle. This is a common late summer sound in the Kawarthas.

Chipping Sparrow (MH):  a mechanical, rapid trill consisting of dry chips, lasting several seconds, and almost sounding like a fast-running sewing machine.

Eastern Phoebe (MH):  FEE-BEEE – a very emphatic, two-note song with a raspy or burred second note. It is repeated constantly. Phoebes are most commonly found around cottage and farm outbuildings.

House Wren (MH): a rapid, bubbling series of trills and rattles, both rising and descending. This bird can be a non-stop singer practically all day long.

Mourning Dove (MH):  HOOO-AH-HOO-HOO-HOO – very slow and “mourning.” The song could be mistaken for that of an owl.

Song Sparrow (MH):  MAIDS-MAIDS-MAIDS-PUT-ON-YOUR-TEA-KETTLE-ETTLE-ETTLE – a variable, complex series of notes that includes one long trill in the middle.

Song Sparrow – Karl Egressy

Chimney Swift (U):  CHIT-CHIT-CHIT-CHIT – an ultra-rapid burst of notes given as the birds fly overhead, usually in Peterborough’s downtown core.

European Starling (U):  WHEEEE-ERR – a long, down-slurred “wolf-whistle,” accompanied by an unmusical series of chips, squawks and squeaky notes. Starlings often sing from telephone wires.

 

 

 

House Finch (U):  think of this bird as “the mad warbler” because of its loud, bubbly, quick-paced, warbled song. Harsh “churr” notes are often included. This bird often sings from the very top of spruce trees in the city.

House Sparrow (U):  CHIDDIK-CHIDDIK… – a dry, monotonous series of identical chips.

Northern Cardinal (U):  TWEER-TWEER-WHIT-WHIT-WHIT-WHIT or BIRDY-BIRDY-BIRDY-BIRDY – a loud, rich and persistent song, usually sung from a high perch.

Red-winged Blackbird (W):  KON-KA-REEEEE – a harsh, gurgling song ending in a trill.

Common Yellowthroat (W): WITCHITY-WITCHITY-WITCHITY-WITCH – a song characterized by an up and down rolling rhythm.

Yellow Warbler (W):  SWEET-SWEET-SWEET-I’M-SO-SWEET – clear, high, whistled notes that are rushed at the end.

Yellow Warbler (Karl Egressy)

Bobolink (FF): – a rolling, bubbling (boboling!) warble of very short notes that seem to almost trip over each other. It is given as the bird flies low over a hay field.

Eastern Meadowlark (FF): SPRING-OF-THE-YEAR – a slow, clear, slurred whistle that carries surprisingly far.

Killdeer (FF):  KILL-DEEEEER or KEE-DEE – a high, strident song, often given in flight.

Ovenbird (F): t-CHER-t-CHER-t-CHER-t-CHER-t-CHER! – a loud, ringing, series of two-syllable “teacher” notes repeated quickly and accented on the second syllable.

 

 

Veery (F): VER-VEER-VEER-VEER-VEER- a smooth, calming series of fluty, ethereal notes that spiral downward.

Red-eyed Vireo (F):  LOOK-UP, OVER-HERE, SEE-MEE, UP-HERE… – a series of simple, whistled, robin-like phrases, repeated over and over and sung from tree tops both in the city and county.

Resources

Thanks to a plethora of bird apps and websites, learning bird songs and calls is easier than ever.  One of the most convenient ways is to use an app such as Merlin (free) or the Sibley eGuide to Birds. Both these apps provide a number of different songs and calls for each species. This is because there are often regional differences or “dialects” within the same species. Another wonderful resource is xeno-canto.org. This is a website at which volunteers share recordings of sounds of wild birds from  across the world. You can download the songs to your phone or computer, as well. This is something many birders do when they travel and want to have the songs handy. Instructions for doing this can be found under “Frequently Asked Questions”. If you wish to watch a given bird as it sings, try searching on YouTube.

Some people find it useful to visualize bird songs using spectrograms (sonograms). They are a visual representation of a bird’s song. If you wish to try this technique, Google “Bird Song Hero”. This is a game in which you match the song to a choice of three spectrograms. Finally, I would also recommend allaboutbirds.org which is usually the first website that comes up when you search for a given bird on line. Click on the Sounds tab. If you go to the Topics tab and select “Bird ID Skills”, there is also an excellent resource called “How to Learn Bird Songs and Calls”.

Being able to recognize bird song is one of the most satisfying ways to enjoy the natural world. To the practiced ear, a chorus of bird song is like a symphony in which you recognize each of the individual instruments. Stepping out the back door or walking down a forest trail and hearing the expected birds singing in the expected locations provides a reassurance that the bird community is healthy, and the seasonal rhythms of the natural world are occurring as they should.

 

ARGUMENTS FOR CLIMATE ACTION

              In a U.N. report released this week, we learned that up to 1 million of the Earth’s plant and animal species are at risk of extinction — and many within decades. In the Kawarthas, this will mean saying goodbye to species such as Golden-winged Warbler, Least Bittern, Eastern Wolf and Spotted Turtle. The burgeoning growth of humanity is putting the world’s biodiversity at perilous risk with alarming implications for human survival. Climate change is a major driver of the extinction crisis and is on track to become the dominant pressure on many natural systems in coming decades. It is already exacerbating the effects of overfishing, pesticide use, pollution and both urban and agricultural expansion into the natural world. Sustained public pressure on politicians for enlightened climate action is absolutely necessary. The Ford government’s environmental policies are the antithesis of enlightened action. It’s heart-wrenching to think that the so many of the wild animals in the bedtime stories we read to our children and grandchildren will soon be gone.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 052016
 

The time that birders have awaited since the lonely, frigid days of winter is now upon us. With May comes the peak of spring migration as long‑distance migrants pour into the Kawarthas from the neo‑tropics ‑ Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and South America. In Peterborough County alone, a day of birding in mid-May can produce over 100 different species. Not only do their flamboyant colours symbolize the tropical habitats whence they’ve come, but their vigorous singing heralds that high spring is finally here.

An elegant synchronicity of events is happening before our eyes. As the green canopy of leaves develops overhead, countless caterpillars emerge to feast on the verdant bounty laid out before them. And, right on cue, hundreds of millions of birds arrive to regale themselves of this insect banquet. While some species remain to nest in the Kawarthas, others are only passing through on their northward journey and won’t be seen again until their flight south in the fall.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks - Drew Monkman

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks – Drew Monkman

You may wonder why an eight inch, two-ounce bird like a rose-breasted grosbeak would risk a perilous 4000 km journey from Costa Rica all the way to Kawarthas just to nest? Obviously, there must be compelling reasons. The short answer is that they are able to raise more young than had they remained in the tropics. Protein‑rich insects are abundant during the Canadian spring and summer; there is a much larger geographical area over which to spread; and the long days allow birds to feed their young more than four hours longer than had they remained in the south.

Enjoying the show

May’s bounty of birds can be enjoyed right here in Peterborough, especially if you have tree cover on your property and an offering of sunflower seeds and sugar water. Early May sees the arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeak, all of which will come to feeders. House wrens, too, are arriving from the tropics and are easy to attract to nest boxes. In the downtown, watch and listen for swallow-like chimney swifts coursing above George Street like chattering “flying cigars”.

Male Indigo Bunting at feeder - Greg Piasetzki

Male Indigo Bunting at feeder – Greg Piasetzki

By mid-month, an indigo bunting may also make a guest appearance at your feeder – an unforgettable sight in its radiant blue plumage. Watch and listen too for up to 16 species of warblers, many of which put in a brief appearance in city backyards. Decked out mostly in yellows, oranges, whites and blacks, warblers are the true gems of spring migration. Bringing up the rear, late May ushers in species such as the red-eyed vireo, which have flown all the way from the Amazon Basin. If you live in a part of the city with mature trees, listen for the vireo’s repetitive, robin-like song as it forages high in the treetops.

Red-eyed Vireo - Karl Egressy

Red-eyed Vireo – Karl Egressy

If you want to take in the entire migration spectacle, however, you will need to be out looking and listening almost every day, especially when the weather is damp and mild. Bird activity is usually most intense in the morning between about 6 and 9 a.m. Song is the key to the birds’ presence, so it’s important to pay attention to the different voices. Warblers, for example, tend to have high-pitched, buzzy songs, while birds like scarlet tanagers, orioles and grosbeaks sing in rich, musical notes. The good news is that many May migrants show up in loose, mixed-species flocks. If you find one variety of warbler, for example, other species are probably nearby as well. Pishing will often bring them in closer for great views.

 

Where to go

Although migrants can turn up anywhere, some habitats and specific locations are consistently better than others. Habitat edges are most productive, including wooded roadsides, the trees along rail-trails, hedgerows, and the shrubby borders of wetlands. Among my favorite places for spring birding are Herkimer Point Road (east of County Road 31 in Hiawatha), Beavermead Park and Ecology Park on Little Lake, Jackson Park,  the Rotary-Greenway Trail (especially the Promise Rock section north of the science complex at Trent University), Lynch’s Rock Road and Sawer Creek Wetland (northeast of Lakefield), Hubble Road (east of County Road 44, north of Havelock), Petroglyphs Provincial Park and Sandy Lake Road (east of County Road 46, just south of Lasswade).

Favorable winds

Flying at an elevation of about 1000 metres, most songbirds migrate at night, which allows them to see the stars for navigation purposes and to avoid predators such as hawks. It is quite common to hear their contact calls as they pass overhead in the inky darkness. Songbirds almost always wait for a tail wind – a wind blowing in the same direction they are headed – before migrating in large numbers. A tail wind allows the birds to expend less energy in flight. In the spring, tail winds are associated with warm fronts advancing from the south or southeast. However, a sustained south winds may cause birds to fly right over your favorite birding destination without stopping. The key to great May birding is to watch the local forecast for some change in the weather such as a forecast of rain and fog. When a northward-moving warm front collides with a cold front, the warm air ‑ and the birds flying in it ‑ rises over the cold. The air cools, rain develops and the birds are forced to land in what is called a “fallout”- sometimes right in your own backyard! This means that rainy mornings in May can produce superb birding, especially when the precipitation is light and starts after midnight. During spring fallouts, I’ve seen trees hopping with dozens of warblers of ten or more species.

 

Song

To the practiced ear, a chorus of bird song is like a symphony in which you recognize each of the individual instruments. As a beginner, though, you should learn to focus on one song at a time and not the entire symphony, which can be quite overwhelming. Focus your attention first on the closest, loudest and most obvious songs. You can then move on to the softer voices. Cupping your ears can be very helpful. American Redstart in full song  - Karl Egressy

There is no doubt that some species sound similar to others. However, when you take into consideration the context of the song ‑ habitat, time of year and the bird’s behaviour ‑ the choice usually comes down to only a handful of species. It is also crucial to learn the memory-aids or “mnemonics” for the songs. To me, a rose-breasted grosbeak sounds like a robin that has taken voice lessons, while a scarlet tanager is reminiscent of a robin with a soar throat! Go to fernbank.edu/Birding/mnemonics.htm for a great list. My favorite bird song app is the Sibley eGuide to Birds. Allaboutbirds.org is another superb resource.

Being able to recognize bird song is one of the most satisfying ways to enjoy nature. To step out the back door or walk down a forest trail on a May morning and hear the expected birds singing in the expected locations provides reassurance that the bird community is healthy, and the seasonal rhythms of the natural world are occurring, as they should.