Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Birding by Tone

This morning a blackpoll warbler is singing from one of the trees in the backyard. Unlike most of the other birds called "warbler" in the northeastern U.S., the blackpoll has no yellow on it anywhere. In fact, it looks a lot like a blackcapped chickadee during spring migration. In fall, the male loses his black cap and becomes overall dull like the female. 

It has a very long travel route, one of the longest. It is usually one of the last warblers to pass through my area on its northbound flight in spring, and so I am usually a little sad when I hear one because it means the excitement of possibly finding "new" birds is over. (Usually. With climate change and strange weather patterns, some normally "early" birds have been arriving with mid- and late-migration ones in recent years.)

The first time I heard a blackpoll's call, which sounds like the kind of metallic, high-pitched he-he-he made by a truck when it is braking, I had no idea what it was. I just knew I'd never heard it before. I rushed from bed, threw on a robe, grabbed my binoculars and located the sound in one of my front trees. What IS that?

The bird appeared and I thought I was looking at a chickadee, until it sang. I watched it for a long time (blackpolls are slow, deliberate feeders) and then went inside to identify it.

That call was easy to learn and remember. Many others are much harder, especially if you only hear that bird call once a year. 

Baltimore oriole (Margo D. Beller)

I had a similar experience with a Baltimore oriole. I heard this high-pitched whistling in a particular pattern repeated again and again. What IS That? Again, I went out front but this time the bird had moved down the road. I dressed hurriedly and followed with my binoculars. 

You would think something black and orange would show up easily in a green tree, and it does - once you find it. Luckily, it kept calling and I knew what it was when I finally saw it (the oriole logo of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team helped, believe it or not).

This is how you learn bird calls - you hear something, you find the source, you try to remember. After over a decade of doing this, it becomes second nature especially if you don't have binoculars with you when you hear something. 

I now do 95% of my birding by ear. Even with high-powered binoculars my eyes aren't what they were and once I've seen a bird, I usually don't feel the need to actively search it out and see it again. (Back and neck aches from prolonged staring at treetops is one reason.) If it appears - like the Carolina wren or the chestnut-sided warbler - I look and am grateful to see it.

My friends think I am some kind of expert. But if you listen and actively learn, you remember. I can tell one friend's voice from another and the voices of my nieces and nephew from each other. It is no different with birds. The thief! thief! of a blue jay is different from the peterpeterpeter of a titmouse, which is different from the sweet sweet I'm so sweet of the yellow warbler -- if you listen and want to remember the differences.

I think of it more as birding by tone or pattern than "birding by ear." There is a difference in pattern between the calls of a mockingbird and a brown thrasher as well as tone of voice. Both birds are mimids, having no songs of their own but taking the calls of the birds they hear around them. 

Mockingbird (RE Berg-Andersson)
No matter what you call it, the most important part is memory. Unlike the kind of memorization we had to do in school, listening to and remembering bird calls is a pure pleasure for me, and anything that is enjoyed is easier to remember. Paying attention also helps. Even during the most mundane errand I listen to what's calling around me and then identify it.

When I was in Great Swamp during prime spring migration time this May, I was amazed I could identify almost all the birds I heard, including some I hadn't heard in a very long time such as the yellow-billed cuckoo and Tennessee warbler. But I know if I was in a northern pine forest I would hear other birds I couldn't identify and would have to learn those calls.

Then it's back to the books and the photos and the bird calls to match a name with a voice. Then work at remembering them. It's a pleasant challenge. Maybe it's even helping me stave off senility.

I'm still learning, you see.