Friday, May 30, 2008

Dawn chorus

From the noted by absence Mountain Naturalist blog entries, I assume everyone is busy chasing wildflowers and birds of spring. Arizona pulled me away for two weeks in April, with my first experience of the sky-islands southeast of Tucson. I will never be the same.

Though I intend to get back to Watts, etc., I have another thing in mind at the moment. Since returning from the hugely irresponsible trip to Arizona, I have not had time to scurry about as I would like. For my consolation, I have worked an early morning pattern into my schedule, awakening at 5:00, and keeping my ear near the open window as the birds begin to sing. After about an hour, I sleep for another 45 minutes or so. Birding by ear is not something I could do even five years ago...but especially with the familiar birds, I have grown quite proficient. Here is what I have learned.

We start out with a two piece band, usually the towhee breaking the silence with odd chirps and squeaks, tuning up, soon followed by one robin. Once the robin has cleared his throat, it becomes increasingly difficult to hear the details of the towhee, but they seem to be paying attention to one another. In the background, a wood thrush gargles off in the woods, laying down a nice bass line, and encouraging the need for a score. These three can go on for five minutes before the local cardinals add punctuation, and the rhythm section begins. Later, the cardinals also add to the melodic phrasing, but at first, they beat the drums.
During this early part, I can hear at least two towhees, robins, and cardinals, in noisy competition. I try to learn the difference between the singers, and have confidence that the earlier soloists are consistent. They hold the first seats in this orchestra, and will prevail by their earned posts.
From here on things get confusing, but Carolina wrens seem to be the next loud crowd, and sound like they are a bit mad at the avian alarm clock. When they start to rattle, they go at it with a vengeance. House wrens are not far behind, then blue jays start scratching at their most treble best, with harsh complaints. The robin ups his volume, but is beginning to be drowned out, and eventually looses enthusiasm. Cardinals are now becoming more prominent in their oratorios, with their metallic refrains setting the stage for the indigo bunting, who can put a hurting on that heavy metal.
Down the south facing slope from my propped head, the field sparrow practices his descending scale, and right outside in the tree the titmouse drones. Overhead, crows take over the percussion section and pileated woodpeckers laugh above the other ridge, and the crows.
By the time goldfinches, red-eyed vireos, red-winged blackbirds, downies, and chickadees decide to add to the cacophony, I return to sleep with phoebes announcing the fullness of the sun.

At the spring VSO meeting a couple of years ago, I made the acquaintance of Donald Kroodsma, the celebrity guest speaker, and widely known for his studies on bird song. His Book, 'The Singing Life of Birds', should be on every birder worth-her-salt's bookshelf, and dogeared. On Sunday morning a few hardy individuals awoke well before first light and met Donald in a cold drizzle for the awakening of woodland birds. With Donald's guidance we all realized a deeper appreciation for details of bird song, personalities, regional dialects, and just paying attention more closely to what most of us love, and some of us regard as 'just noise'. I had a friend write me recently asking 'how do you turn off the birds?' He must have had a long night.

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