On Birding

Author Jonathan Franzen was quoted In an article in the NY Times about bird watching in Central Park:

“I thought I knew the park,” Mr. Franzen said. “I realized I didn’t know anything about the park at all.”

That pretty much sums up my recent conversion to bird watching. For years I have avoided identifying the flying world. They move too fast, I can’t see their colors, markings, tail shape, whatever. However, the cacophony in the trees and shrubs every morning is the sound of creatures I really do want to know.

I thought if I could learn the language, maybe I would know what was going on up there. It turns out, birding by ear is very practical. In an introductory class, I learned that because of their cryptic behavior (you: on the ground/birds: way up in the trees) you can’t actually see many birds, and the only way you know they are there is by their song or call.

I went on a couple of bird walks, got some binoculars, tried to pay attention, and voila – I am now a “birder”! I will be at the Birding 101 level for a long time, though. I learned a little vocabulary by listening to one bird at a time. I got a 2-CD Cornell ornithology lab recording of western bird songs. When I see a bird I can identify – or have someone else identify – I can look up the song. A song without a bird prompts me to rummage through likely candidates. If I am lucky I get it right and then I have a new birdsong in my vocabulary.

(Note: playing songs to the birds to call them out is deeply frowned upon. If everyone does it, or you do it at times when birds are busy trying to stay warm or deal with stress, it adds more stress. Also, I found out it sometimes scares them away if the call is an alarm! Anyway, I try not to do that, and I do not advocate it.)

Listening to the chatter in the trees and bushes is like being in a crowded room where everyone is speaking a different language, of which you know only “hello”, “goodbye”, and “lookout for that owl!” Just when you think you know the local dialect, you realize there are other sounds, obscure ones, that you have no idea what they mean or who’s talking.These nuances of meaning are analogous to the beginning language student’s realization that they have a long way to go before they can carry on a conversation in a foreign language, much less get the jokes.

It seems that I really have missed half of what is going on in the world.  As I walk or work in the yard, I realize birds are extremely busy. One by one I hear, name, listen to their chatter. Are they taking turns so they’ll be heard? Or talking to each other across species boundaries?

Black headed grosbeak – when it really gets wound up, a humorous long horn solo with squeaks, trills, wolf whistle in the middle

Stellar’s jay – everything’s an emergency (shut UP already). A screecher, kind of raucous, but they don’t stick around long before hustling off to yell at something else. It’s always about themselves!

Chickadees – black capped or chestnut backed? I once thought I knew but I can’t always tell for sure by the song. Need to practice that one.

Chestnut backed chickadee

Swainson’s thrush – probably heard it long before I knew what it was, now I hear it all the time, but never see one, although I did see one sitting at the top of a Dougfir singing one evening, I didn’t have the binocs, so I sort of had to imagine what it looked like. Knowing that, this YouTube video is quite amazing. I just realized it is on the neighborhood_naturalist channel done by the people who teach my birding classes. Excellent sound and photography!

Bewick’s wren

Bewick’s wren – I hear a different dialect than the one on the CD, beautiful and bright. Common in our yard in Seattle too.

Red-breasted sapsucker – A fun garden companion with a squeaky woodpecker sound, (just a hint as they fly by) they don’t mind if you walk up to them. Their drumming is distinctive.

Western wood-peewee – song sounds like its name, now I recognize its flight: out/ back, out/back, catching insects. I can hear its beak snap when it grabs one.

Red breasted nuthatch – such a beautiful, delicate creature; such a loud duck-like call. Oddly, their song is not at all musical – more like some kind of mechanical device or a squeaky hinge, louder and clunkier than their size and plumage would suggest. Beautiful, small beaks and streamlined heads, they surgically remove insects from crevices and cling to tree bark. Once one came to the window screen to eat insects out of spider webs.

Northern flicker – sometimes sounds like a hawk, or robin, or acorn woodpecker ‘wacka-wacka-wacka’: Here’s a photo and the full repertoire of sounds

Saw-whet owl – I originally identified it by its “tooting” sound in late winter. Tom found it in a tree the chickadees were mobbing. Tiny.

Spotted towhee – often seen rummaging around in the shrubbery, they have a somewhat monotonous trill. I’m putting a link in place of a photo because I can’t find a public domain one that looks like the actual bird.

Dark eyed junco – so common in these parts, but I only recently found out what they sound like when I saw one in a parking lot chatting away. Now I hear them all day long, alternating with the towhees. Recently I tried to distinguish them from a chipping sparrow with no luck – it’s that foreign language thing again.

Ruby crowned kinglet – One of the little flitty birds. I noticed it in the fall, a solitary one hanging about with a flock of chickadees – turns out that is one of their distinguishing behaviors. Now I recognize them by their wing bars, and round, light colored bellies flitting through branches. Once in a while you see the male flash his red crest, and up close you can see the eye ring.

Birding is really entertaining. Endlessly so. There are tons of wildlife areas, parks, and yes, sewage ponds to visit to see birds, not to mention just sitting on the porch all day listening. Getting a good look at a new bird is like finding Easter eggs.

I never pay any attention to the descriptions of bird song in the guide book – they never make any sense. Thank god for technology and people who spend all that time making recordings. Also thanks from the bottom of my heart to the fieldtrip leaders who taught me the little I do know.

Since we thinned the trees on our hill, it is much easier watch for birds. If you take a chair, it’s even easier! My friend MaryEllin came for a visit and we did just that. Must put some benches in.

Credits for photos are included, or they are public domain. Many are from Wikipedia. Some day I might have a camera capable of zooming and the patience to take my own. Meanwhile thanks to all the photographers whose photos I have used.

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