Month: April 2017

On Studying Warbler Songs

In January, I created a list of New Year’s resolutions, with learning and memorizing warbler songs as one resolution. Days later I signed up for an upcoming trip to Magee Marsh – located in Oak Harbor, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Eerie – during the first week of May with Saw Mill River Audubon. This would be my first trip to Magee Marsh. I couldn’t have hoped for a better reinforcement and place to fulfill another resolution to see more warblers.

I started studying in early April.  To begin, I looked up the eBird hotspot for the boardwalk and made my way to the bar charts to check which warblers are most likely to be observed there. I added a few more species because they are also common in Westchester. I ended up with thirty-six songs to study and review. Throughout these past few weeks, I’ve been taking two or three days of each week to concentrate on small batches of 3-5 warblers. I’m not quite finished. Just a couple days to go. Here is my progress:

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As you can see, the Kirtland’s Warbler is listed…just in case.

 

I color-coded the days and numbered the warblers to help myself remember which species I studied when and at what point. (The colors are brought to you by my grapheme-color synesthesia.) Italics symbolize priority. These are the species I think I should attune my ears most to at Magee Marsh. About half of each batch includes species’ songs I don’t know – Blackburnian, Prothonotary – and the other half includes species with which I’m already familiar (Yellow, Prairie). This helps my brain avoid the feeling of being stuffed with cotton and have an easier time taking in new information.

I randomly select the species (“I’ll study this one today” – is pretty much how it goes). I have several resources on hand: Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, National Audubon’s online guide, and various YouTube channels. I mostly skip plumage since I’m already familiar with ID’ing a lot of warblers based on sight. An optional first step. I did make a few exceptions for the more subtle species, such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Connecticut. I also find the captions under the Additional Photos sections helpful in regards to diagnostic marks and behavior. We are getting at the point in which foliage helps warblers hide from the world.

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Nashville Warbler page in Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide. © Stephenson and Whittle

Next, I turn to the sonograms page. I keep the book beside my laptop.

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American Redstart sonograms in The Warbler Guide. Not all of the warblers have seven different types of songs, thank goodness. © Stephenson and Whittle

I bring up the Lab of Ornithology’s warbler page via Browse Bird Profiles, play the audio clip, and read the sonogram as I listen. (You will find that there are vireos mixed in. They can be confused with warblers. Stephenson and Whittle handily acknowledge this in their guide.)

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A screenshot of the warbler group main page on allaboutbirds.org. © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Then I do the same with the Audubon guide. Unlike Cornell, Audubon provides multiple songs per species, thus also providing the various song types. Audubon’s guide sounds like a better companion to The Warbler Guide‘s sonograms, but I like referring to Cornell because it can have song types that Audubon doesn’t provide. Even if the clip were of the same song type, an individual bird usually sounds faintly different than another individual.

I try utilizing the rote memory method.I would listen to each clip several times, either looking at or not looking at the sonograms. Sometimes, if the variations are so different, I play two clips simultaneously so that it sounds like two birds dueling over territory boundaries.

(I stated in my resolutions post that I “must take advantage of…the Macaulay Library.” I simply forgot about that at the time I started studying. But I think using All About Bird’s and the Audubon online guide are enough for now, having just a few audio clips of the most basic types – and little variation – at hand.)

After that, I head over to YouTube to watch videos of the warblers singing (largely Lang Elliot, Wild Bird Video Productions, and Larry Bond in that order). By combining sight and hearing, the videos further help me associate the song with that particular species.

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Lastly, I add on to the Review list I created. Asterisks replace italics to indicate priority birds.

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I don’t review the songs in-between study days. I tried it. It mostly overwhelmed me and I still couldn’t play many of the songs in my head from memory afterward. The ones that did stick easily were Chestnut-sided and Mourning. I’m getting there with Hooded, Tennessee, and the waterthrushes. But, for most of them, if I do play an audio clip, the best I get to is “Yes, this is familiar.” (I know what the best method of learning bird songs is for me: to venture out in the field with an experienced listener, processing one or two songs at a time.)

Once I complete all thirty-six species, I have in mind to review any two songs at the most per day. Rote memory, rote memory, rote memory. Yes, I’m aware I’m running of out time. The Magee Marsh trip is less than a week away. But there are warblers elsewhere and farther in the future (as bleak the future seems).

The Timberdoodle’s Dusk Dance

The American Woodcock – nicknamed the timberdoodle, bog sucker, and Labrador twister – is a shorebird with a stocky body, a mottled black and brown back, and a long, thin beak to probe soft ground for food (earthworms, insects, snails, etc). Woodcocks spend their winters or live as year-round residents in southeast United States. They migrate to the Northeast to breed in young forests. Their movement peaks in March in Westchester County, using the Hudson River as a guide. Woodcocks prefer to forage on moist ground, rhythmically rocking back and forth as it steps forward, attempting to disturb the ground to find food. Their dance-like movements have caused some amusement on the Internet. Their large, beady eyes are near the back of their heads so they can watch out for predators as they forage.

Woodcocks charm birders with their extravagant and unique courtship. From March to June, their displays and courtships occur at dawn and dusk, held at open fields and forest clearings. Males peent repeatedly to attract females’ attention. They then shoot up to the sky, spiraling and spiraling. After reaching up to 300 feet, they descend in a zig-zag, chirping, wings whistling and twittering. Their landing is silent. (You might see the woodcock ascend and descend, but not where it lands.) And thus repeats until success.

When I learned about the woodcock’s existence, it was through this Lang Elliot video. During the one minute and ten seconds, the woodcock turns 360° as it occasionally puffs out a nerdy peent, its entire body bobbing up each time. I fell in love with the shorebird so suddenly I teared up. It’s both cute and hilarious.

Not long after I learned that Saw Mill River Audubon hosts a woodcock walk at Croton Point Park every mid-March. I was never so excited to observe a potential life bird. I had to hear the peents for myself. I couldn’t contain my anticipation. The day before, I made my coworkers watch the video at any free moment they had. I wanted to spread awareness of this unbelievably endearing shorebird.

Just before dusk, we walked the road at the base of the landfill, carefully treading on the side of the path. It was a bit too breezy than we wanted. (Woodcocks dislike wind, preferring calmer air when they want to forage or display. They also like warmer temperatures and will not be active when the temperature is below 40°.) Regardless, we were caught off guard: a woodcock in plain sight right at the corner of the woods. It stood completely still for us for about thirty seconds before it finally fled to the phragmites half, disturbed by our large group. When the dusk nearly passed, we heard a second woodock briefly peent-ing. That was all we had for the evening. But I had both seen and heard woodcocks. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I struggled to suppress squeals of elation when I heard my first real life peent.

The walk I attended the following year had an excellent turn-up. We heard at least six different woodcocks calling, their tinny peents sounding from multiple directions. I almost teared up again. When there was very little light, and the sky and landfill were tinted dark blue, the woodcocks engaged in their courtship flights. We watched their silhouettes as they catapulted themselves upward and – after a pause – zig-zagged downward. We could hear their wings twitter.

This year, an ill-timed Nor-easter occurred on March 14th, during the woodcock’s peak migration period. SMRA’s walk was scheduled for the 19th, and Muscoot Farm’s for the 18th. Both, of course, were canceled. 16 inches fell in my area. People recorded as much as two to three feet around the surrounding counties. No way would woodcocks be able to forage and perform their ritual with all this snow.

Before dusk on the day after the storm, I was driving home and stopped at the three-way intersection across from the Blue Mountain Middle School – one of the busier intersections in my fragmented-forest-suburbia. In a span of two seconds, the following happened: Just as I made the sharp right turn, I saw a woodcock on the right side of the road; and when I was about to run it over, it took off. I couldn’t pull over, so I stared after it wide-eyed and open-mouthed as I continued to drive. That was not how I imagined I would get my First of Year. And I got my first real good look.

It’s understandable why the woodcock liked this risky spot. The intersection is by a lake, from which flows a stream, which passes under the intersection. The snow plow cleaned the road a little too much on one side and exposed a lot of fresh soil. The woodcock had found a little haven to have a breather.

Apparently, the March 14 snowstorm really threw off the woodcocks. When I returned home and read my email, I learned that my incident wasn’t isolated. Via the New York State Birds Listserv, birdwatchers in the New York City area reported a woodcock fallout (“oodles of doodles,” as someone put it on the New York Birders Facebook page). Through the 15th to 19th, birders sighted dozens of woodcocks in Central Park – as many as 40 on the 15th. They were easy to spot because of the omnipresent snow. They huddled wherever they could find open water and exposed ground. Local Red-tailed Hawks made effortless prey of them. News of the fallout made it to the New York Times, which reported that the Wild Bird Fund treated 55 woodcocks overall. People were finding them all over Manhattan, starved or injured from having flown into high-story buildings. Anders Peltomaa, who occasionally contributes to the NYS Birds Listserv, wrote up a report for the Linnaean Society of New York. (You’ve also got to take a look at the close-up photographs he uploaded.)

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SMRA rescheduled their woodcock walk to this past Sunday, April 9, three weeks after the initial date. The weather seemed ideal: no more snow on the ground, no precipitation of any kind, no wind, and the temperature dropping no lower than 45°. As we waited for people to gather in the parking lot, starlings buzzed and gurgled, waiting for nighttime in their roosting trees. Attendance didn’t exceed 15 people. Daylight sluggishly faded away between 7:30 and 8:30. A near full moon out-shined many stars and alighted the ground. A female Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted at the base of the landfill, shortly disappearing after she realized we would be sticking around. Long after sunset, dozens of robins sang and whinnied and yeeped. They darted one by one from the landfill to the trees until darkness completely fell. Uncountable Spring Peepers called. As we walked along the edge of the path, we listened and watched all around us for any sound and for any movement from a woodcock: the edge of the woods, the field in front of the phragmites, the side of the landfill, the plateau of the landfill. Our guide tried three times to coax responses with playback, sounding off peents, then the twittering wings, then the male’s confrontational string of clicks. Only a few of us, including the guide, heard the virtually inaudible wing twitterings, perhaps from two woodcocks. After that, silence once again. We extended the walk a bit by double-backing and strolling around another part of the landfill. Only the spring peepers announced their presence.

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Muscoot Farm also rescheduled their walk, to this weekend. I will be attending that one as well. Anything goes – I’m not expecting much activity, but with birdwatching, you learn to not expect, thus avoiding disappointment. Given the harsh impact March’s Nor’easter had on the woodcocks, it’s hard to say how badly they were affected until next year. If another Nor’easter doesn’t disrupt them again.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 4-2017

Reports of First-of-Season birds – including Eastern Phoebe, Pine Warbler, Palm Warbler, Chipping Sparrow – have been popping up. The past couple weeks were rainy and cold, but the weather predicted for the day of the hike looked promising: a clear sunny day, with the temperature rising from 40° in mid-morning to 50° by noon. And the snow from March’s Nor’easter finally melted away. Where there’s good weather, there’s good birds and much bird activity. I’d been looking forward to this month’s hike for the past week or so.

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Early spring flora: skunk cabbages by the pond. © S.G. Hansen

Unsurprisingly, our group count exceeded ten. Besides us regulars Mike, Rudy, Gerry, and me, several SMRA friends from Project Feederwatch joined. This winter season Cornell Lab of Ornithology project ended last Sunday, freeing the volunteers’ weekend mornings. Also joining us today were the Czech father and son duo (who last hiked with us in September), and two friends/former coworkers of mine.

From the time I arrived to when the hike began, I already counted up to 10 species, including a small variety of raptors: a Red-tailed Hawk, an Osprey, and an immature Bald Eagle – all flyovers. A male Brown Cowbird tried impressing a few female cowbirds. Robins foraged on the forest floor and whinnied. The year-round residents made their presence known with constant song.

While helping my friends adjust their binoculars, I missed the small group of Cedar Waxwings that the rest of the group had at trail’s beginning, but I did see the red-tail from before. It wasn’t hard to miss the site of a small massacre:

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Blue Jay leftovers. © S.G. Hansen

Just before we reached the meadow, I spotted two adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers foraging next to the trail. Their red napes and throats stood out like red on a cardinal. They engaged in a quick skirmish. One landed on the tree on which the other was foraging, and the latter was chased off. I was a little surprised – I had never seen them in spring. But they are still on the move. Checking the eBird bar chart, people apparently spot them in Westchester all year round, albeit not so much from mid-spring to early-fall.

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A full pond. The red maple flowers are blooming. © S.G. Hansen

We took a short break at the eastern end of the pond. Two Red-winged Blackbirds conk-la-ree‘d. An Eastern Phoebe flycatched. No ducks or herons. Walking along the pond path, we came across more robins and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers. A flock of goldfinches twittered across the pond. Chipmunks darted away from us.

Someone noticed a male-female pair of Green-winged Teal swimming around the western end! The teals slowly scootered towards the phragmites, presumably to hide. Our group was rather large. Fortunately, most of us got an excellent view of them.

Seeing these small, attractive ducks at Brinton Brook was a first for me. They’ve been sighted at the sanctuary before, the first and only other time on March 2016. Teal aren’t as common in Croton as other wintering ducks, such as the Common Merganser and the Bufflehead.

Just as we were still observing the teals, a Palm Warbler stole their thunder. My First-of-Season! I wasn’t the person to spot it, but as soon as I heard one of us utter “Palm Warbler,” I diverted my attention from the teal to this bird, which was no more than twenty feet from us (I’d seen so many teal at the Montezuma refuge earlier this year anyway). I couldn’t miss out on such an amazing look at my first warbler of the year, especially one with vivid spring plumage. (I don’t count the Yellow-rumped Warbler, which I see more during winter than spring.) The sunlight intensified its yellow face and breast and its richly rufous cap. The Palm foraged on the edge of the pond, sticking close to two robins nearby. It flitted low among the vegetation on land and water, and even ventured onto the path for a bit. Its tail never took a break from bobbing up and down. At one point, the Palm perched higher in a tree and sang a few times. Had I not actually seen it sing, I would have mistaken it for a Chipping Sparrow or a junco. We made sure to tread carefully as we moved along so as not disturb the Palm much. But like the teal, it eventually hid itself from us completely.

When we reached the western end of the pond, we heard a Pileated Woodpecker call once. It called a second time a minute later, as if teasing us. As we admired the close-view of a bright male cardinal, the Pileated revealed itself, landing on a tree nearby. Seconds after, another Pileated landed on the same tree, on the opposite side of the trunk. Both climbed simultaneously, as if they were engaged in a challenge. I tried to discern the color of their mustaches (red for male, black for female) but couldn’t. The first took off, and then the second followed suit, both calling maniacally. They flew out of sight and hearing.

Ed Mertz and I dubbed the portion of the trail that leads to the power lines “the dead zone.” Each time we hike it, we hardly see or hear any birds (Ed, fellow SMRA member, frequents Brinton Brook more often than I and takes wonderful photographs of the birds). Today, however, we counted one robin and – this one caused excitement – a Northern Flicker. The flicker, which was foraging on the ground, flew to a tree, exposing his yellow-tinged wings. Farther up the hill, we encountered two vibrantly blue male Eastern Bluebirds. While one hunted for insects, the other was cooperatively perched on a tree at eye-level for several minutes. I spotted another flicker.

The power lines didn’t have much songbird activity. Another cardinal sang and our third and last flicker called (pew!). We had unintentionally split into two groups. My group, having gone ahead, saw another Red-tailed Hawk flying over the field, and the other group observed an adult Bald Eagle soar over the forest. A Turkey Vulture glided overheard as we re-entered the sanctuary.

Our hike down was quiet save for a few chickadees and titmice consistently calling and buzzing. A second Carolina Wren sang. Blue Jays jay’d. We stopped to look a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree. It flew away when we continued, allowing me to note it was an immature – blank breast, lack of red tail, pale tail bands.

Once we reached the last leg of hike (the yellow trail, which loops around the pond), activity increased some. I heard more robins, presumably the same ones from the beginning of the hike. A small flock of goldfinches drank from the stream, twittering incessantly and yet sweetly. One male’s plumage nearly molted to bright yellow. A White-breasted Nuthatch and a Song Sparrow sang. I found one Dark-eyed Junco.

Earlier, Ed and I talked about the fact that we had seen every woodpecker possible except for the Hairy. We kept our ears open and eyes peeled for one since we saw the first flicker. Ed even joked that couldn’t leave the sanctuary until we had one. Barely at trail’s end, we heard a sharp call. We waited to hear it again but got nothing. We didn’t see a bird either. The Hairy’s call sounds very similar to the Downy’s (as do their songs), but the Hairy sounds louder and forceful in comparison. I added Hairy Woodpecker to my list. That call had to have belonged to a Hairy. (We did it, Ed!)

I observed 30 species today. This month’s hike was great all-around: good weather, good birds, good company. I expected another other First-of-Year, the Chipping Sparrow. I was a little disappointed to not observe a Chipper. I thought I would hear its song for sure. It doesn’t beat a Palm Warbler, though.

Check out the eBird checklist here.