American Bitterns typically nest in tall, standing cattails, rushes and sedges, where they are well concealed. Like most birds, male bitterns use their voice to attract a female and to stake out their territory. Dense marshes present a challenge when it comes to being heard, however. American Bitterns overcome this challenge by having a very low-frequency call, which is audible at great distances in dense marsh vegetation. Once you’ve heard a bittern’s call, you’ll never forget it. It is very deep, and has three syllables – “oong-ka-choonk” – which are preceded by clicks and gulps. The bittern makes this call multiple times by inflating his esophagus while contorting himself quite violently. A female American Bittern couldn’t help but be impressed. (You can hear a bittern calling by visiting Cornell’s site, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_bittern/sounds .
Winter must be on the wane, as a tufted titmouse was recently singing its fast-repeated, clear whistle song, “Peter—Peter—Peter,” in nearby woods. Male titmice repeat this phrase over and over, up to 11 times in succession. Occasionally females sing a softer version of this song. The calls of tufted titmice, on the other hand, are very nasal and mechanical-sounding. Songs are typically more musical and complex than calls, and are often sung only by males during the breeding season, to attract a mate and claim territory. Calls, on the other hand, have many purposes – there are calls for aggression, warning, identification, flocking, hunger and to announce a food source, among others.
Even though black-capped chickadees are named for their chick-a-dee-dee-dee winter song, it is their so-called spring song which resonates most with many of us. It seems as if chickadees are immediately aware of when the days start to get longer, as their mating song begins as early as January. Sounding to some like “fee-bee” and others as “hey-sweetie,” this delightful song consists of two whistles, each about half a second long, with the second whistle a lower pitch than the first. Although these cavity nesters won’t actually be breeding until April, we will continue to be serenaded by their courtship song throughout the winter. As birdsong expert Donald Kroodsma so aptly describes this song, “It is the purest of whistles, this promise of spring.”
If you lived in New England in the early 1800’s, the sight and sound of a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) would not be familiar to you. In the mid to late-1800’s they began extending their range northward in eastern North America to the point where they are now year round residents throughout New England. This range expansion is largely attributable to changes in habitat (more fields and shrubby areas), as well as the demise of the practice of capturing mockingbirds for the pet trade. However, during the last 25 years Vermont has experienced a 26% decline in breeding mockingbirds, due largely to diminishing habitat, according to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas.The Northern Mockingbird is known for its ability to mimic other birds’ songs (a male’s repertoire often contains more than 150 songs, which changes and can increase as the bird ages). In the spring and fall, if you hear a bird singing at night, especially during a full moon, it is often an unmated male mockingbird. At this time of year, you’re more likely to see, not hear, a Northern Mockingbird.
There is something irrepressibly cheery about the song of an Indigo Bunting. The male’s paired notes ring out from a high perch, where this unbelievably blue bird positively sparkles in the sunlight. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” site, the male sings as many as 200 songs per hour at dawn and for the rest of the day averages a song per minute. To hear an indigo bunting sing, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/sounds .
The Yellow-rumped Warbler (aka “Butterbutt”) has returned to our woodlands, and our ears and eyes are all the richer for it. The song of this bejeweled songbird often stumps me the first time I hear it every spring. It is described as a “slow, soft, sweetly whistled warble” or trill. It is also said to resemble the sound of an old-time sewing machine. To see which song description you prefer, or to make your own, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-rumped_warbler/sounds.
The return of song sparrows and their energetic songs tells us spring has definitely arrived. The males sing a sequence of notes, including clear whistles and buzzy sounds. According to nature recordist Lang Elliott, each male has about ten songs in its repertoire and tends to repeat one pattern for several minutes before changing to another. Although other birds may produce more musical songs, you’d have to search far and wide for more enthusiastic outbursts than those of a song sparrow.
One night this week I became aware of a series of whistled “toots,” all the same pitch, coming from the adjacent woods. This far-reaching, distinctive call comes from a surprisingly small owl, the Northern Saw-whet — one of our most common owls, whose common name comes from the “skiew” call that is made when it is alarmed. This sound has a resemblance to the whetting of a saw. Although a Saw-whet only weighs about as much as a robin, you would never know it from the volume and carrying power (over 300 yards) of its call. Typically the male calls only during the mating season, in an attempt to attract a female with whom it will mate. The female then selects the nesting cavity, typically a Northern Flicker or Pileated Woodpecker hole, usually in March or April. This pint-sized raptor (weighing less than 3 ounces, and measuring 8 inches in length) feeds mainly on deer mice. Unlike most owls, it does not swallow the mouse whole, but rather tears it in half, leaving the second half for another meal.
Black-capped Chickadee – Welcome to a photographic journey through the woods, fields and marshes of New England
Find more of my photographs and information similar to that which I post in this blog in my book Naturally Curious, which is now available from www.trafalgarbooks.com or your local bookseller.
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES SINGING