Beaufort Today -

Birder’s Eye View: Spring is the time to sing

  • Diana Churchill
  • The Georgia state bird, the brown thrasher, is an accomplished crooner. Listen for his couplets from a high perch. (Photos by Diana Churchill/For Savannah Morning News)
  • Lucky chuck-will’s-widow in a box shows off its large mouth when it is threatened. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Savannah Morning News)
  • Pine warbler gives a ringing trill, usually from high up in a pine tree. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Savannah Morning News)
  • Female red-bellied woodpecker “sings” as she inspects the nest cavity. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Savannah Morning News)
  • The Georgia state bird, the brown thrasher, is an accomplished crooner. Listen for his couplets from a high perch. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Savannah Morning News)
  • Lucky chuck-will’s-widow in a box shows off its large mouth when it is threatened. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Savannah Morning News)
  • Pine warbler gives a ringing trill, usually from high up in a pine tree. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Savannah Morning News)
  • Female red-bellied woodpecker “sings” as she inspects the nest cavity. (Photo by Diana Churchill/For Savannah Morning News)

If you go out in the field with a “real birder,” you’ll notice right away that he or she spends as much time listening as watching.

I vividly recall my first spring bird walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., led by local bird guru Bob Stymeist. Without raising his binoculars to his eyes, he reeled off a list of birds he could hear — northern cardinal, northern parula, blue-gray gnatcatcher and pine warbler. By following the calls, we were able to locate and visually confirm his by-ear identifications.

I was impressed, and envious. “I need to be able to do that,” I told myself. Another birder guided me to “Birding by Ear” — a set of three cassettes tapes (I’m dating myself) by Dick Walton and Bob Lawson that offered guidance for learning the calls of 88 bird species. It is now available on CD, and after you master that first group of birds, you can graduate to “More Birding by Ear” to add an additional 90 species to your repertoire. Feeling overwhelmed? Just start with your backyard birds and build your bird vocabulary one bird at a time.

Birds communicate throughout the year, but spring is when the noise really ramps up. When you need to claim a territory or impress a potential mate, it is time to quit with the simple chitchat and really strut your vocal stuff.

During most of the year, the brown thrasher — the Georgia state bird — keeps a low profile. You’ll find him down on the ground, silently thrashing about in the leaf litter in search of tasty bugs. When spring comes, he doesn’t molt into fancy feathers to get a date, but takes to the treetops or a handy wire to impress the ladies with an endless series of raspy couplets.

Woodpeckers can be really annoying in the spring. Their idea of courting is to find something metal and drum on it as loudly as possible, preferably before dawn. This is not the sedate tap-tap-tapping you’ll hear when a woodpecker is looking for food, but a full-blown percussive outburst designed to warn off other males and grab the attention and hopefully the heart of a nearby female.

Once the courting is done, the woodpeckers will progress to cavity excavation. I watched Mr. and Mrs. Red-bellied Woodpecker going in and out of a cavity, punctuating their activity with a series of loud trills and “chuck, chuck, chucks.” Watching a bird sing somehow helps me connect the bird and its song.

One of my favorite springtime calls is a nocturnal one. Every year, I wait eagerly for the ringing tones of the chuck-will’s-widow. Occasionally, someone will hear the faster notes of the eastern whip-poor-will, but this smaller member of the nightjar family only migrates through our area to its nesting territory farther north. These ground-nesting birds seem to be suffering from habitat loss and an increase in predators, such as raccoons and feral cats. I no longer hear them on the coastal hammock where I live, but have to visit the Whitmarsh Preserve or Skidaway Island.

Last week, my co-worker Nicole and I arrived at Wild Birds Unlimited to find a large cardboard box outside the door. We assumed someone had decided to drop off baby birds (not recommended). However, when Nicole brought in the box, she heard strange growling noises. Peeking inside, she found an adult chuck-will’s-widow looking up at her with alert eyes and a fully spread tail.

An hour later, a woman called to explain that the bird, likely stressed by the previous night’s storms, had ended up at the shopping center across the street. It was harassed by a crow, and hit the window at Sally’s Beauty Supply. The woman knew that Nicole helped licensed rehabilitator Pat Wolters — hence the box. Nicole wanted to weigh the bird before sending it to Pat, but when we opened the box, the bird reared its head, opened its mouth wide and hissed like a snake! Chuck-will’s-widows are harmless, unless you’re a flying insect. They have certainly come up with a clever way to appear frightening when threatened.

This was one lucky chuck. On the first evening, when Pat tried to release it, it just came back to the ground. After a second day of food and rest, it flew beautifully!

So enjoy the pine warblers trilling, the great crested flycatchers “wheeping” and the ringing “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” of the Carolina wrens. Stay tuned for new voices as migration brings in buntings, tanager, kingbirds and more.

Spring is the time to sing. Good birding!

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Bird enthusiast Diana Churchill can be reached via email at dichurchbirds@gmail.com.

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