Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Name that Tune

Summertime birding can be a challenge. Small song birds prefer the safety of thick hedgerows, cedars and hawthorn trees and finding them turns into an exercise of extreme patience. Some birds prefer swampy habitats where mosquitoes breed and walking is treacherous or impossible. Treetop birds bring on a stiff neck from excessive upward gazing. But most birds do sing or squawk or chirp and recognizing their unique sound is the key to positive identification.

Black-billed Cuckoo

Manitoulin Island provided a veritable symphony of bird song. The Sandhill Crane's unmistakable rattle frequently filled the air. I learned the call of the Black-billed Cuckoo who nested near our cabin. Any visitor to a northern lake would recognize the call of the Loon over the water.

The road to the camp was about 2 kilometers long and each little section had its own bird groups. We stayed in the Warbler woods.

Up the road toward the big swamp was Woodpecker way where the Downies, Flickers and Sapsuckers hammered on dead wood. I didn't know the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker made a cat-like noise? But it is different from the Grey Catbird's meowing call.

Downy Woodpecker

Next came the Indigo Buntings and these lovely blue jewels flew back and forth from treetop to treetop along the roadway.

The cedar trees near the swamp were home to a variety of Thrushes. I was drawn here daily to listen to the haunting song of the Veery. The complex song was the most beautiful I have ever heard. (listen to their songs here)

Going the other direction led to the field of the Bobolinks. These hyperactive birds had a wild raspy song that went on and on like a long jamming session. The males perched on the hydro wires and on tree tops while the females in their modest plumage stayed quietly in the bushes.

Male Bobolink

The woods near the waterfront hid a loud but invisible Whip-poor-will. And the lane way was the stage for many enthusiastic Vireos.

I recorded sounds of birds I could not see with my camera in hopes of learning their songs. Here is a compilation of some of them. The visual quality is not great and my hand held efforts, along with the wind and grey skies may make you queasy as you watch. If so, just close your eyes and listen. What do you hear?

Postscript ~ I posted the video link on our local birding forum and one of our local experienced birders added this analysis of the bird song...

"... aside from those you already mention in your post, I hear: House Wren (really singing up a storm in the early part), Black-billed Cuckoo (in the background of the House Wren; cu-cu, cu-cu-cu, cu-cu, etc.), Yellow Warbler (underneath the wren - there's a Redstart singing in the background too, makes it a bit confusing), American Crow, Eastern Towhee (these are in the same segment, way in the background) Gray Catbird (mewing a bunch toward the middle), Song Sparrow (in behind the Catbird), Rose-breasted Grosbeak (during the shot of the trees after the bit showing the House Wren), and Chipping Sparrow (singing under the yellowthroat).

There's also an interesting call at the end, underlying the Common Yellowthroat - a single, long, hollow sort of note, which is another Veery vocalization. (I think it may be a warning call of some kind - they seem to make it whenever they spot me, anyway).

"Sounds" like it was a very good area to visit, anyway - very diverse!"


  1. Wow Ruth! What a symphony. I am still not very great with birdsong, but I did hear that Sapsucker loud and clear, and thought I heard a Red-wing blackbird in the distance too.

  2. Anonymous7:37 am GMT-4

    I'm not very good at identifying birds by their song, but once I heard the veery in the woods, I've never forgotten that distinctive sound. Glad you had such a nice vacation. It sounds like a beautiful place.

  3. Lovely sights and sounds. The photos are great. What a good place for a vacation.

  4. Anonymous8:46 am GMT-4

    Quite the orchestra out there. Thanks so much for the link to the indentification site. It will help me a lot.

  5. What a plethora of bird song you managed to capture! A lovely memory for when the cold winds blow. We don't have quite that kind of medley around here!

  6. Ruth you did a fantastic job on your video! I love it and I'm going to have to try your video method to help me with bird id's. It's a great idea. The two most beautiful bird songs in my opinion are the veery and the hermit thrush and I am fortunate to have both sing at dawn and dusk at Hasty Brook.
    I've never heard or seen a bobolink.

  7. Our birdsong is just as prolific, but sounds almost entirely different!

  8. Anonymous3:17 pm GMT-4

    There is nothing more beautiful to the ears then the melodies of birds. Great video!

    Was there goldfinchs in that group?

  9. Jayne- I have added an expert analysis today of the songs. The meow I recorded was a Catbird. The Sapsucker's cat sound is different and always came from a treetop. There were plenty of Red Winged Blackbirds there.

    Jan- The veery song was amazing! I didn't know what it was until I got home.

    NCMW- You likely have some interesting sounds from around your house. Recording them is a great way to learn.

    SG- It is a multi-level orchestra for sure! The Cornell Birding site is great for checking bird songs.

    CS- Cold winds...I guess they will return. I will remember that today when it is 30C ;-)

    Lynne- I would love to see a video of bird songs at Hasty Brook! The Bobolink was a life bird for me, and what an actor he was. This little 2 km stretch had a stream, swamp, lake front, farm meadows, and bush. The variety of habitats attracted a lot of birds.

    Karen- I would love to hear BC!

    Cheryl- It was funny...I saw no Goldfinches for days. The Yellow Warblers were everywhere. Then I noticed a few at a feeder, but they were not abundant. There are no Cardinals on Manitoulin and I didn't seen even one Blue Jay.

  10. Listening to birds singing seems so peaceful, doesn't it? Even if we cannot identify the songs, it is fun and relaxing to listen to them.

  11. Anonymous2:00 pm GMT-4

    (Larry-Brownstone Blog)Too bad I'm reading this at the libray. Now I want to play it but I can't! Black-billed Cuckoos are a somewhat special bird to see around CT. I think of sapsuckers making a sound of an air-filled squeaky toy. Their drumming sound is very distinct as it slws down in the way a roulette wheel does.-birding by ear is fascinating.-I have to agree with you about all of the obstacles of summer birding.

  12. Mary- How true. Even if you cannot identify the songs they are lovely to listen to.

    Larry- Sorry you couldn't hear the video. I was copying your technique of recording bird songs. Your description of the Sapsucker sound is perfect.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.