Wild Ideas: The hills are alive with the sound of (bird) music

By William H. Majoros via Wikimedia
This little thrush-like bird, which is actually a warbler, breeds near running water in mixed deciduous forests in our area during the summer. By William H. Majoros via Wikimedia

Birdsong is starting to fill the air as summer breeders arrive and other birds migrate through on their way to the north, so I’ve been taking my recorder with me on morning and evening walks in the forest around my house. My recorder is invaluable, as my aural memory is terrible. I have to review the sounds of birds in our area every spring just to be able to weed out the most common ones.

The third week in March, I started hearing a song that seemed familiar, and in reviewing my recordings, I found the same song, only mislabeled as that of indigo bunting, for some reason. I actually do know the bunting’s song pretty well because of an easy mnemonic for it — “fire, fire, where, where, here, here,” in descending pitch. But then, I don’t trust my memory.

Before finding that recording, I had checked at the All About Birds website and on my iBird app — both from Cornell Lab of Ornithology — for the songs of all the birds I thought might fit, especially the warblers and vireos, but had no luck. So I punted the ID to Bruce Jones, who forwarded it to Dick Raines, who was on the board of the American Bird Conservancy and lives near Rock Mills. He identified the song tentatively as that of a Louisiana waterthrush.

When I was going through the bird songs (and there were many), I had dismissed that species because of the name, thinking it wouldn’t be this far north, but in fact it does breed here in the spring and throughout much of the rest of the eastern part of the United States. Northern waterthrushes migrate through this time of year, so I spent quite a while, for my own peace of mind, comparing the songs of both waterthrushes from Cornell Lab’s Macaulay library with my recording of the bird in question: 

I have a free audio-editing app, GoldWave, that actually shows sonograms of recordings, which helped in this case, although I had to go through a pretty kludgy process to do the comparison. I’m also no expert in reading sonograms, but I feel pretty sure at this point that Dick is right (thanks, Dick!). I was happy at least to find out that my notion that the bird was a warbler is apparently correct. Despite its name, the Louisiana and northern waterthrushes are in the New World warbler family (Parulidae).

I had actually seen the bird, definitely warbler sized (small), singing and flitting from limb to limb in a sapling just a few yards above my head. But, in the dim light of dawn, it was just a brownish blur. There was not even enough light to check for the distinctive, thrush-like dark stripes that this species has on its chest. Getting that close did, however, help with the quality of the recording I made with my ancient little Olympus digital recorder.

When it comes to warblers, as most birders will tell you, it’s pretty much impossible to tell many apart visually, especially in the fall, when the males have lost their breeding plumage. The key is to learn their songs. Having said that, it takes a good ear — better than mine — to sort them out. My only hope is to constantly review recordings (and sonograms), and practice, practice and practice in the field.

I had another first-species sighting for me last week, although it was of a fairly common winter bird in Appalachian forests. I was hiking with Slate Mills resident Robin Williams along Thornton River Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

We had been admiring the health of the hemlocks along the trail, from seedlings to more mature trees. They looked verdant and free from the scourge of the wooly adelgid. That foreign invader had destroyed much of the hemlock stands in the park, including my favorite one along the Limberlost Trail a decade or so ago.

In checking on what turned out to be the Louisiana waterthrush’s song, I had also listened to that of kinglets, both ruby- and golden-crowned. When I saw the tiny bird hopping from branch to branch in the hemlocks, and heard its call, my first guess was that it was in this genus (Regulus), in the Old World warbler family.

By Dori via Wikimedia
Tiny little golden-crowned kinglets that overwintered in the Blue Ridge forests will soon depart for the higher Appalachian elevations to the west and the boreal forest of the far North to breed. By Dori via Wikimedia

The ruby-crowned kinglet winters here but is much less common, as Robin reminded me. After she checked the bird with binoculars, and I checked its call with my iBird app, we concurred that we were seeing the golden-crowned.

All About Birds notes that, although the bright markings make the bird easy to identify, “a good look can require some patience, as they spend much of their time high up in dense spruce or fir foliage.” Listening for their high, thin call notes and song” helps. Where there is one kinglet, there likely will be more, and, as we watched the first bird, another appeared on a nearby branch, both of them busily working the hemlock in search of bugs.

While the cold-hardy little golden-crowned kinglet mostly breeds in the far north, the website’s range map shows that some stick around in the higher elevations of the southern Appalachians, including the portion on Virginia’s western border.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Learning birds’ songs and tracking migrations

All About Birds has a page on learning birdsong, including audio clips paired with sonograms of them. I find looking at the visual representation really helpful, not just in interpreting the sound but also in remembering how it “looks,” which helps when I’m in the field.

The information, which also includes a link to a free downloadable guide, “Eight Warbler Songs to Learn This Spring,” is from Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s award-winning book and app, “The Warbler Guide.” In finding that the app was only available for Apple devices, which I can’t afford, I contacted the authors to see if an android one is forthcoming. Whittle wrote back right away, saying that the android version is “almost done . . . I expect it to be ready in the next month or so.”  

Another chance to learn the songs of our native birds is a pair of bird walks in May, one for beginners and one for more experienced birders, that the Piedmont Environmental Council is holding at the Jones Preserve, the property of Bruce and Susan Jones, near the town of Washington. (Go to pecva.org/events for more information.)

Also on the bird front, one of our summer residents, the ruby-throated hummingbird, should be showing up soon, as a discussion on Rappnet (our local Listserv) reminded me last week. Usually they arrive here by mid-April at the latest. To track the movements of hummers and report sightings, go to hummingbirds.net. Ebird.org (another Cornell Lab of Ornithology website) also has interactive maps showing first sightings of hummers and many more species and invites input from citizens. And to see weekly forecasts of regional migrations, go to another Cornell Lab site, birdcast.info/forecasts.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”


  1. Since moving to Rappahannock, this time in spring has become my favorite… Because of the sound of the (bird) music. It’s like being in a bird sanctuary… What’s not happy about that!
    Thanks for a Great Post Pam!!!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Christa. I carry my recorder with me every time I go out into the woods – or sit on my deck – this time of year to try to brush up on bird songs and to learn new ones. The diversity of birds is one of the many things that make Rappahannock a great place to live in, IMHO.

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