Sunday, June 16, 2013

May 2013: Bird Songs are IT!

In the winter I can lie in bed and imagine the chorus of frogs, that globe of pulsing sound, but not the songs of birds. I can imagine the bright colors of the rose breasted grosbeak, but not the lilting reiterations of its song

I can imagine the darting red of the scarlet tanager, but not the slurring syncopating song

and the oriole, all orange in my mind's eye, but the fluting song is mute in my winter ear.

Even though I practice Mozart, Chopin and Bach on the piano one hour every day, I can't grasp bird songs in the darkness of winter. Their notes have to be wrapped in spring leaves. I can't alienate the song from the concert hall. Blame the wood thrush.

The thrush song blows my ears and mind. If I drink too much wine in the evening, I think the trees are singing. I took the photos of the other birds in May. I took the photo of the wood thrush in October, as it fattened up for its long trip to Central America. I never see the wood thrush in May even though it sings every evening and every dawn and on many days, especially the cloudy ones. I never see it in May because it's wrapped in leaves when it sings. I see wood thrushes on the ground in late April. The leaves aren't out enough for it to sing.

I shouldn't be using the impersonal pronoun "it." The male birds do almost all the singing in the spring. Bird songs claim territory and invite sex. In the spring that's what birds are all about. In March and April plenty of birds make that sex and aggression apparent, especially what I call the power pole birds. The red wing blackbirds' kereeing and flash of red epaulets are one of the excitements of the spring. The male comes weeks early and energizes any dead stalk in the marsh into a power pole.

Then the ospreys come and extend that metaphor to the extreme. After they hover in the air above the river, screeching and pairing up, they build their nests on power poles along the river and a half mile inland. It seems the more wide open the pole the better. Here is one of this year's nests in Thousand Island Park.

Can't see an osprey? Just you wait. They are all over the place, especially on poles.

Nothing is more he and she than the birds. I assume that the birds that arrive in May exhibit the same passions and aggression as the ospreys, and blackbirds not to mention the geese who sometimes fight all night on the river until they settle into pairs. But the song birds are wrapped in leaves. It is just harder to see, and thus: THE LEAVES OF MAY BLUR BOUNDARIES THAT ENGENDER SONGS. That's what I wrote down in the middle of the month. Small birds that can't be seen must be heard. And the melody of the songs of some small birds seems to move constantly through the trees.

With humans the whole carnal-val began when the fig leaves dropped. Not so with the song birds. I know they are there in the trees, the he and she birds, but in the spring as the songs hop and fly throughout the leaves, it's IT to me, entrancing, but ironically forgotten in the winter. Look at that wood thrush's breast. Some kind of musical notation!

Around our little house in the woods, a typical evening in early May begins with wood thrushes singing, then some tree frogs start up, snipe ululate, Spring peepers and gray tree frogs resume their chorus, a whip-poor-will methodically beats time at all points of the compass. That's It. The video clip below is underwhelming, no wall of sound, no dancing in the swamp, but it's all I need. I am at one with... IT.

I wish I was exaggerating. After all I grew up with a sitcom in one ear and a pop song in the other. My ears only slowly lost the beat of modern American life. In the 1970's and 80's my wife and I annually visited my parents in Thousand Island Park for 2 or 3 weeks in the spring. After dinner they would repair to the TV and we would cross the golf course across the street and go up into the woods to a ridge overlooking acres of trees. I never thought of taking a photo of that valley in the spring. Here's what it looks like in the fall.

We would listen to the thrushes, on the edge of a boulder seat as the eery songs of the hermit thrushes began to top those of the wood thrushes and veerys. On our walks home in the dark we would hear the whip-poor-will singing at each stop on its way to the insect rich trees overlooking the golf course. We often heard two whip-poor-wills. We decided it would be nice to spend every spring night listening to thrushes and whip-poor-wills.

Before he died my father gave me the house and in 1994 we moved permanently to the island. Then the demands of keeping a child entertained seemed to peak just when the birds were singing. Walking to the ridge after dinner was not one of his favorite things to do. (A few weeks ago we at least went up to the ridge over looking the golf course to count the bats coming out of the woods and hear the whip-poor-will. We got a rare glimpse of the fluttering flight of the whip-poor-will, very brief in the dark video below.)

Of course once we moved to the island and our son was in school, the first week in May was devoted to hiking in the woods and, forget about the wood thrush, we began hearing rose breasted grosbeaks. How to distinguish its song from yellow warblers and robins? It dances several fluting notes longer. One afternoon I was able to get some video showing a grosbeak singing. Another grosbeak was singing in the distance which is probably what made the grosbeak near me so insistent.

A towhee was nearby and as insistent as the grosbeak.

However, one melodious problem of listening to bird songs at our house on Wellesley Island is that robins are everywhere. Only the orioles could top their notes. So to hear the sounds of other, rarer birds, and to get some relief during the tourist season on the river, we bought 52 acres of land, mostly wooded, 4 miles south of the river. In 2006 we found a spot surrounded by ironwoods under huge red oaks and didn’t have to cut down any trees to make room for our 28 x 16 foot one room house.

On May 18, 2006, as we were digging post holes, we heard a rose breasted grosbeak singing high in the towering oak, a good omen. But living with the birds doesn't guarantee seeing them, only hearing them. And this May we had our annual see the grosbeak challenge as he hopped from branch to branch in the tall red oak. I saw one hop; the rest was lost in song.

Of course, birds had been making themselves known around our house in the woods before May. The chickadee and song sparrow, both winter here, and give you a taste for sweet songs from small birds (I refer to the former's "feee-beeeee" song.)

There are two springs, March 21 and when the leaves in the trees make the birds sing. As we learned spending evenings in the woods on the island, the wood thrush song is the nonpareil. Living in the woods, we soon discovered that the thrushes sing in the day, especially in early May. When we first spent May nights at our land in 2007, we still had to hike a bit into the woods to hear their song, but since we don't cut much vegetation on our land, as opposed to all our neighbors, each year they seem to be more comfortable moving closer to our house. Since we have owned the land, the woods have been undisturbed for 15 years which probably hasn't happened since about 1830.

While other birds do give the impression that they are singing to claim territory and attract a mate, wood thrushes sound like they are making wishes and if they keep repeating them with clever variations and sing them with a coy sweetness then they will all come true. As for territorial claims, their good natured song seems to preclude any disputes.

My wife Leslie generally likes to stay in our house after dinner and listen to the wood thrush there. I'll catch his song at the first light of dawn. So I sit by a pond 200 yards away waiting for muskrats and listen to a wood thrush in the trees behind me, which despite repeated attempts I never saw. For most of May he kept up the same pace of song as at the beginning of the video clip below, but by May 28, well, let's hope his wishes had come true and he had happily mellowed.

The most intriguing thing to me about thrush song is that the thrush seems to throw the sounds several feet across the tree. I suppose that arises from the sharp variation from clear tones to a buzz. My camcorder can't pick up that motion. The thrushes and other birds also sing at dawn and we lay in bed three hours every May morning half sleeping and half listening to thrushes. One morning I swear I heard the clear tones of the thrush on one side of the house and the concluding buzz on the other. Then I went back to sleep. I was wide awake in the evening when I was sure I heard the thrush song start on one side of the dirt road and end in a tree on the other side. Of course, I can't see the thrush and can't see if it just flew across the road.

In the same area of scrubby woods, I saw an oriole, and twice saw a scarlet tanager. The tanager sings like it has some doubt that it has to sing at all. Which makes sense, just see how striking it looks.

Scarlet tanagers like deep woods and that we are seeing more around our house is another testament to how the woods have grown. A closer study of bird territories is an enjoyment for another May but we might be making some sense of it. Our land forms a triangle with woods extending beyond the hypotenuse and the other two sides with our woods facing open fields. The grosbeaks seem to gravitate toward the bushes closer to the fields. I think we have four nesting pairs. Vireos are spread throughout the woods. The wood thrushes tend toward the high or well leaved trees near fields. For five years the first tanagers we saw were deep in the woods. But now they have moved out to include our house and ponds in their territory.

Last May a tanager was almost too easy to spot since it perched on the tallest pine overlooking a field and sang.

This May the tanagers had a nest where our land meets a strip of woods heading down to a huge wetland. The nest was over a dirt road. The male tanager seemed confused as he policed what must have seemed like very low ground. He was down in catbird and towhee country. One morning I saw him in the trees not singing but seeming to listen to the phoebes and redstarts sing.

In 2012 leaves came out a few weeks earlier than this year. The 2012 tanager was showing his colors after successful nesting, I hope.

By moving into the woods we found that we escaped what we consider one of the major drawbacks of bird watching. What is the point of traveling all over the world for a fleeting glimpse of a rare bird when you can live with the birds. True, keeping tabs of the grosbeaks, tanagers and thrushes was not easy, but at our land we discovered the vireo, a small bird that is everywhere in the woods, even back on the island, but if you don't live a few feet from its nest, they are easy to miss.

Their song is pleasant, melodic snatch, not quite long enough to grab your attention every time a vireo sings, but to compensate for its brevity the song is repeated throughout the day beginning in May and, if all goes well, into July. Then when it stops singing, you might get a good look at one.

I got that photo in late August when it was fattening up for migrating to points south. I do see it in May, but it keeps jumping from branch to branch nabbing bugs and singing after every bite. I could take long videos of its singing as I try to follow it with my camcorder, but meanwhile Leslie is rattling pans or doing other chores. Hard for close neighbors to get that degree of separation that makes for definitive sound tracks.

Late in the month, in another part of the woods, I saw a song sparrow perch on a log of an empty beaver lodge to spruce its wings after a bath. All the while a vireo up in a nearby tree sang as it picked off bugs to eat.

Song sparrows have a brilliant burst of song, and can ring out through a swamp in March when snow is on the ground and bring me to warm attention. But in May song sparrows seem to sing a modest song and don't even try to keep up with the likes of the vireo.

One small bird that is all over our land in May challenges my assumption that the making and taking in a bird song is a shared joy. Scientists who analyzed bird song with sophisticated equipment can show how much of the song our ears of incapable of hearing. And it is possible that our brains shape what we can hear into a more accessible and hence more pleasant experience. Birds might here more stress and strain as they react to every note and inflection. We might miss the half of it. Some smaller birds remind me that all song is not mellowed by the fresh green leaves. One evening I sat by our small Salamander Pond and a redstart seemed to demonstrate to me that, dammit, it wants to be seen and heard.

Let me close with my favorite. Eventually the wood thrush wants to be seen. By late June when it is time to impress young wood thrushes with their melodic fate, the adults plant themselves out on a dead limb and give their most virtuoso performances. The bird in the video below keeps looking to the right which is where I would hear the final notes of its song. Like I said, the thrush warps my brain. The video ends focused back on the leaves still hopping with songs. A veery was buzzing in there and so was the tale end of the thrush song.

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