People who identify birds by song always seemed to inhabit a different world from me. While I tried to see field marks, watching for a white ring around the eye or a yellow patch on the butt of a bird, these people would be shouting out things like “Chestnut-sided Warbler!” and “Was that a Red-eyed Vireo or a White-eyed Vireo?” While I walked through a forest of flitting birds, they walked through a living soundscape of birdsong that was barely perceivable to my fairly large but untrained ears.
Ask how they know the call, and hear birders spout what sounds like gibberish. They say to listen for birds singing “Sweet, sweet, Sweet I’m so Sweet” (Yellow Warbler), “Pleased, Pleased, Pleased to meetcha” (Chestnut-sided Warbler) and “What, what, where, where, see it, see it!”(Indigo Bunting) Listen for these magic phrases in song and the world of bird songs open up, they say.
Apparently, some people hear “tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet” and a random phrase comes to mind that helps them identify the bird. It took me five years to hear a Yellow Warbler say “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet” and not “Tweet, tweet, Tweet, tweet”. Picking birds out of the surrounding soundscape is an art and skill that does not come naturally to me.
While not skilled at it, I accidentally fell into that soundscape the other day. My ears have been slowly trained over the years to the point that some bird calls pop out of the muddle of birdsong and can be identified. Listening too deeply to the calls, they blurred into a giant chorus line of birds that was mesmerizing in a hypnotic trance kind of way. Individuals popped in and out of the mix, a robin here, a kinglet there, a White-throated Sparrow high above the rest. The world around me faded and I was almost blinded as my ears took over listening to the songs. In my head, that is how people who bird by ear walk through the world, hearing an ongoing, ever changing bird soundscape as a soundtrack to their life.
Look at it this way. Have you ever gotten a new car, then suddenly notice that car everywhere? That is what learning birds is like. Once you learn how to identify one, it pops up everywhere. Learn how to identify the song of an Indigo Bunting one day, hear it singing while filling the car with gas the next.
I heard my first woodcock as a teenager, where it sang behind my house at dusk. The song is a distinctive “peent”, like an uptight bird fart. Over time, that sound sneaks through the sounds around it to scream “Woodcock!” That “peent” has cut across the surrounding noise in some interesting places. It’s echoed across the quiet moonlit parking lot at the Chautauqua Mall after a date at the movies. “Peeeent!” That sound has popped out of the swampy area in front of Lowes. While I hear them on roadsides, my favorite place to see them is at the Hatch Run Conservation Demonstration Area near Warren, where I will be leading a walk on May 12 to watch these odd little birds.
Sandhill Cranes are amazing, prehistoric looking birds that have only recently started nesting in the region. Their prehistoric croak first caught my ear ten years or more ago. To figure out where the dinosaur-like call came from required a walk to the swamp to see the bird, which was luckily huge and obvious. A week or two ago, that same odd call sounded while I was on the trail, and my brain informed me that there was a crane nearby before my eyes even started looking for it. There will be a Sandhill Crane program at Audubon on May 5 to learn about and search for these large birds.
To give credit where credit is due, most of the bird calls I know have been learned at Audubon’s yearly Birdathon, where Audubon staff and volunteers bird for money that goes to a scholarship for a student in an environmental field. Some amazing birders come each year and have patiently showed me how to identify the same bird by song several times each year for years on end before I learned them. (Special thanks goes to Dave Cooney, Sarah Hatfield and Don Watts for helping me learn a few birds by song.) This informal day of birding is a highlight for how to learn: surround yourself with experts and learn by doing. We’re excited to have Heather Zimba, this year’s scholarship winner, join us for this year’s birdathon. You can donate to support the scholarship, Heather, and our birdathon effort at auduboncnc.org, if you are interested.
Learning from patient, passionate experts is one of the best ways to learn anything. The other group of people that have taught me how to identify birds is Audubon’s merry crew of bird banders. Every Saturday from April 29 till May 20, this crew of volunteers captures, identifies and bands birds that are otherwise elusively hiding in the shrubs and trees. It offers an unparalleled opportunity to see wild birds up close and learn them without staring hard through binoculars. Through them, I have gotten up close looks at Golden-winged Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, and other birds that normally elude me in the brush.
One of the joys of being a naturalist is that there are always people who know more than you and you can learn from them. Nature is so complex, with so many intricate details, that it is impossible to know it all. Many people have taught me about birds, others about dragonflies, and still others about trees. Some knowledge is easily absorbed. Other things, like bird songs, remain a challenge. And now, sitting in my library at home, is a CD filled with how to identify grasshoppers and katydids by their song. Right now, they all sound like they buzz, but maybe, with some help and five years of effort, the buzzes will slowly become the distinct calls of individual species singing in a field. Then again, maybe not.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. Hike the trails, attend a program, or participate in an event to learn more about birds and the world around you. ACNC is located at 1600 Riverside Road just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Visit online at auduboncnc.org or call (716) 569-2345 for more information.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at ACNC.