This time of year, sorting out the many bird species that are vocalizing can be overwhelming. Not having ambitions of ever being a dedicated birder, I’ve worked my way all the way up to, at best, average at identifying local birds by sight. This year, I’m trying to get a better handle on bird vocalizations, and the birds aren’t helping.
Males of many species like to defend their territory by singing from the highest spots within it. In early spring, the bare branches make them easier to see. Now that most trees have leafed out, trying to find them has become a frustrating avian version of “Where’s Waldo.” Even narrowing the location down to the tree is a challenge, making me constantly wonder if birds are ventriloquists.
Some books and apps help. I’ve found, for example, that the BirdNET app can analyze bird vocalizations better than I can, but my human brain can do one thing better: focus on a one sound, no matter the pitch or volume, while ignoring all others. Most of my identification skills come from spending a lot of time just sitting in one place and observing birds. By watching, I’ve learned not only how to ID them but also about how they lead their lives — interacting with each other, finding mates, raising young, hunting for food, dealing with predators, and exhibiting some mysterious behaviors that confound and intrigue me.
This spring, I’ve become more diligent in reporting birds I observe to eBird, an online citizen-scientist database developed and maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and partnering organizations. The data collected is aggregated and shared in many ways that Lab members can access, and anyone can join for free. Among other things on the website are checklists for an area (down to the county level) and the species they have reported there, birding “hot spots,” interactive maps that show the arrival and departure of migrating birds as they are reported.
So far this year, I’ve submitted 16 checklists for where I live in Old Hollow, reporting a total of 33 species. A few stray observations are not on them, including those of a bald eagle, a great blue heron and a red-shouldered hawk, since I didn’t log the date or time, and I know there are more species out there that I have yet to ID.
One of the most numerous species here, I’ve discovered, is the red-eyed vireo, which migrates in to nest here every year. I’m finally more-or-less confident in recognizing its song, with help from BirdNET initially. At least one hooded warbler and scarlet tanager showed up briefly, as they usually do every year before moving on to other spots to reproduce. I first noticed their songs, which BirdNET again helped me identify, after which I found it easier to locate and observe these colorful birds.
One bird was real challenge to me this spring — a drab little bird that appeared at the forest edge when I was sitting outside listening to the dawn chorus over while having my morning coffee. I could see nothing was distinctive about it until it burst into bubbly song. After analyzing the sound, BirdNET suggested it was from a warbling vireo, which I confirmed through checking visual ID points for the species in my field guides.
Looking forward to visiting habitat other than the heavily forested mountain where I live, last Saturday (May 4) I joined other Rapp Nature Camp (RNC) “perennial campers” on a birding expedition along the Shenandoah River. We started on the west side at Bentonville Crossing, looking and listening in the forest surrounding the parking lot, the fields nearby and under the bridge that spans the river. We discovered birds defending territory through song, interacting with each other and to us, looking for food and building nests.
Among the nest builders was a colony of cliff swallows constructing nests under the bridge. They kept flying back and forth to a ditch to pick up mud. Although at this point in the construction, the nests looked like a series of mud hammocks to me, according to Cornell Lab’s AllAboutBirds website, “the finished nest is gourd shaped and contains 900-1,200 individual mud pellets.” (Audio clips of songs and calls, among other information about bird species, are also on the website.)
Crossing over the river to Shenandoah River State Park, we entered a mix of habitat — trees along the river, bordered by meadows, with a forested ridge on the other side. This diversity of habitat attracts diverse birds, garnering the park’s designation by eBird as Warren County’s top birding “hot spot,” with 151 species reported there.
With the help of RNC director Lyt Wood’ prodigious birding skills, by the end of the three-hour walk, our group had a checklist of 42 species, recorded for submission to eBird by Patty Lane. After the camp session, Lyt and Patty went on to do more birding in the park, submitting another checklist. (See the sidebar for a list of species for the morning session and for my checklists, or go to the eBird website for all lists mentioned; search on “Warren, Virginia” for the May 4 checklists and “Rappahannock, Virginia” for all of mine.)
It was a treat seeing so many birds that I hadn’t seen in a long time and a few that were new to me. Some had gorgeous plumage, others sang beautifully and a few, such as the plentiful Baltimore orioles, offered the complete package. But my favorites, after Lyt pointed them out, were two yellow-billed cuckoos, in the trees where we parked. I had never seen one in the flesh before, although I regularly hear them calling on summer nights from deep in the forest surrounding my house. Now I’m determined to spot one where there.
© 2019 Pam Owen
- The Sibley eGuide to Birds, by David Sibley
- iBird Pro, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and partnering organizations
- BirdNET, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Chemnitz University
Printed field guides
- “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America,” by David Sibley
- “Eastern Birds,” a Peterson Field Guide, by Roger Tory Peterson
- “Sibley’s Birding Basics,” by David Sibley — although a slim volume, goes beyond basic ID points to delving into the science behind why the appearance, sound, and behavior of birds differs among species and how having a basic understanding of taxonomy helps with identification
- “The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong,” by Donald Kroodsma — a highly readable, fascinating book that plunges into the scientific complexities of bird song (comes with a CD; see donaldkroodsma.com for more details)
Spring bird sightings
By RNC “perennial campers” along the Shenandoah River (May 4)
Great blue heron
Great crested flycatcher
Northern rough-winged swallow
Rock pigeon (feral pigeon)
By Pam Owen, in Old Hollow (through May 3)