It's a difficult time to be a human singer. Singing in public is a dangerous, highly-effective way of spreading coronavirus-infused droplets. We simply can’t do this until a vaccine is widely available. So I'm singing only to the cats and focusing my listening on NE Ohio's avian and amphibian choruses.
My listening hikes with Wendy restore a sense of presence and balance. Even though we had snow delays in May, birds continued to migrate, establish territories, and nest. Frogs and toads called from any semblance of a wetland whenever adequately warm. And Wendy continued to find a log or a stream bank or the side of a trail from which to make her “15-minute watercolor sketches” (which are often closer to 30 minutes, I have come to understand).
Instead of doing a targeted educational topic for this post, I decided I'd simply share a collection of April observations from three parks.
April 12th: Lake Erie Bluffs on a cloudy, breezy Easter afternoon with very few people on the trails. The sky expanded out to the horizon and flowed back as water. Birds sounded louder and clearer because human noise had dissipated during the shutdown, and I felt a sense of space I hadn’t experienced since early March.
Wendy chose to paint from a trailside bench near an accomplished Song Sparrow soloist on a territorial perch.
I followed my ears to find the source of a distant chorus of Spring Peepers proclaiming the triumph of spring from pools of standing water in a gas line clearing.
When I returned to Wendy's park bench, the Song Sparrow was now singing a different melody from his extensive repertoire.
As we listened, he switched yet again.
Can you hear the difference?
The sonogram below shows one example of each of the three songs.
That's what we heard. This is what Wendy saw.
April 25th: Eldon Russell Park on the upper Cuyahoga River in Geauga County. Eldon Russell is irresistible to both of us in April. It’s a time of Rusty Blackbirds, Brown Creepers, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.
And the marsh marigolds were in bloom!
Wendy didn’t need a bench or a log from which to paint. Sitting at the edge of the trail directly facing the expanse of yellow and green was all she required.
While she painted, I walked up the gravel trail from the marsh marigolds towards an old field on my left. I heard a Northern Cardinal who was adding a light flutter to the end of each of his songs. To my ear, it sounds like the flutter-tongue technique that can be used in a flute piece, though to other people it sounds more like a purr or a light rattle. Look and listen closely - you can probably hear this in the recording and you may be able to see the light, vertical lines at the end of the sonogram.
I've recorded this song extension a few times before. What was especially interesting to me this time was that another Cardinal nearby was exactly matching the first Cardinal's song, likely to define territorial boundaries, but never included the flutter at the end of the first male’s song.
This area was also a perfect habitat for the Field Sparrows who’d arrived earlier in April. The accelerating rhythm of their songs sounds delightfully joyful, though I know the birds are actually proclaiming their territories and advertising for a mate. The pitch can rise toward the end of the song, descend, or stay the same, but it’s the rhythmic pattern that makes the song easily identifiable.
And of course there were American Robins singing with their typically purposeful enthusiasm. To me, they’re never “just Robins.” Yet I also heard very high, almost squeaky pitches as well. I searched for European Starlings, but there were no starlings, and no cowbirds, either. Northbound Rusty Blackbirds would be closer to the river in the wet woods. So what was I hearing?
American Robin songs often have a few very high pitches at the end of each song. In The Singing Life of Birds. Donald Kroodsma described the high pitches at the end of many Robin songs as a "hisselly", which makes sense to me because consonants like S’s are at a much higher pitch frequency that vowels in human speech.
Here's how this looks and sounds:
But the almost constant hissellys were not from the Robin I was recording. I directed my mic above me to another Robin that seemed to be making smaller movements than a typical singer, and the mystery song suddenly came into focus.
Kroodsma wrote that sometimes a Robin might sing using only the high, hisselly pitches. That's exactly what my sonogram indicated: typical robin rhythmic patterns on pitches way up in the "hisselly" frequency range. I don’t believe I’ve heard an entire hisselly song before and I certainly hadn’t recorded it!
Finally, there were indeed Rusty Blackbirds. I find them traveling north along Eldon Russell's river edges and swamp woods every year. They nest in wet boreal forests and bogs, so we typically only encounter them on migration.
I am always so thankful when I hear them, as their numbers have dropped dramatically. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds online resource, the population has plunged an estimated 85-95 percent over the past forty years. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rusty_Blackbird/overview
Each year I hear the Rusties feels like a gift, as I know there may be a time when their songs are absent from NE Ohio in April.
April 29th: North Chagrin Reservation along the Chagrin River. The Oxbow Lagoon area is not very quiet because of traffic along River Road and thundering processions of substantial motorcycles emerging from hibernation. But it’s relatively close and there’s almost always something engaging to see or hear when I move farther from the road and closer to the river.
Late April typically brings the return of multiple Yellow Warblers, Willow Flycatchers, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, as the shrubby fields bordering the lagoon and wetland areas are a welcoming habitat for them. It also brings Wendy to the small observation deck that overlooks the wetland – an excellent location for an artist.
I heard the first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher as soon as I opened my car door in the small dirt and gravel parking area just off River Road.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, and Red-winged Blackbirds were calling from all directions as I walked. Warbling Vireos’ songs spiraled upward, ending like an emphatic question.
Although male birds (and sometimes females) are singing only for their own species, I often hear relationships between the pitches and phrases of different species. Listen to the Warbling Vireo/Blue-gray Gnatcatcher “call-and response duet.” The gnatcatcher’s voice is much higher than the Warbling Vireo, as you can see in the sonogram. Notice, too, the higher, emphatic pitch at the end of each Warbling Vireo song.
In the distance, there was also a continuous pitch that seemed to be the foundation for all the birdsongs above it –the toads! I thought I had missed the American Toad chorus this year, as Wendy and I had already found toad eggs in a small, marshy area in another part of the park days earlier.
As with the Spring Peepers earlier in the month I could hear their tantalizing chorus from somewhere I hadn’t yet discovered. The dried seed heads of last year’s cattails suggested a relatively inaccessible wet area nearby. I was careful not to create much disturbance as I quietly slipped between shrubby crabapples and blackberry tangles. Even the Red-winged Blackbirds weren’t overly indignant.
Finally, there it was: the Toad Concert Hall!
I didn’t need to wade in for photos. I just wanted to listen under the warm sun, nourished by nature’s songs all around me.