Saturday, May 11, 2013

Springtime Trio in the Swamp

Have you ever thought about what songs go together in a particular habitat at a certain time?  For me, there are bird, amphibian, and insect songs that are linked together in my mind and ears as seasonal ensembles.  For example, I expect to hear a chorus of toads embellished by the songs of the first returning Yellow Warblers of the spring.

While exploring the flood plain of the upper Cuyahoga River recently, I noticed how well the songs of three avian singers blend together iin the swampy woods along the river banks in late April and early May.  All three species have high-frequencies songs with tone qualities that complement each other beautifully.  This ensemble is comprised of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Brown Creepers, and Rusty Blackbirds. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are common nesters in NE Ohio, Brown Creepers occasionally nest in wet wooded areas and along rivers, and Rusty Blackbirds are passing through on their way to the boreal forest.  All three species require some attention in order to notice their songs.

Let's start with the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers - tiny birds, fast-moving birds that flit among the leaves so quickly that it's hard to focus on them.  

Their voices are much higher that most other birds, but you may have heard their calls:

But have you heard one sing?  Their lovely songs are very light, soft, complex, and high.  When I recorded this bird at the Geauga Park District's Eldon Russell Park on the upper Cuyahoga River, I was actually able to watch him sing.

They also have what I describe as a "calling song," which, not surprisingly, is somewhere between a call and a song.  I recorded this example at the edge of the Holden Arboretum's Corning Lake in Lake County.  Again, I was able to watch the bird as he sang.

We hear - and occasionally see - Brown Creepers when they pass through NE Ohio on migration in the spring.  I say "occasionally" because they forage on tree trunks and blend perfectly with that color and texture. They "creep" up the tree trunk and largest limbs, then fly to the trunk of the next tree to begin their upward climb again.  

These birds build their nests under pieces of peeling bark on dead or dying trees.  I once watched a Brown Creeper carry moss to a new nest site under some overhanging bark on a dead tree along the Chagrin River.   Had I not seen the bird carrying nesting material, I never would have known a nest was under construction!  Brown Creepers are not as common as Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, but I have recorded their songs in various wet woods and along forested rivers and streams in NE Ohio. 

Brown Creeper songs are light and high, but they are louder and carry farther than those of the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Even so, raucous Red-winged Blackbirds and noisy Spring Peepers can easily obscure their short melodies.  This song was recorded in the flooded woods on the upper Cuyahoga River while standing in several inches of mud and water.

Finally, there are the Rusty Blackbirds.  These boreal nesters stop in swampy woodlands as they travel, investigating the muddy forest floor and flipping over wet, dead leaves in search of food.  Their songs are unflatteringly described as the sound of a squeaking, rusty gate, but I think this is quite unfair.  I love their haunting songs, and I was able to listen to a flock of them singing behind a Brown Creeper soloist. 

According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site, "Rusty Blackbird is one of North America's most rapidly declining species.  The population has plunged an estimated 85-99% over the past 40 years."  One of the reasons I so love hearing them, sadly, is that I wonder how much longer this will even be possible.

I don't generally get to hear a Rusty Blackbird soloist, but the individual you will see and hear below sang at the edge of Holden Arboretum's Corning Lake while on migration for the past three springs.  Other Rusties were on the small, wooded island near the shore of the lake, but this bird chose to sing from a tree right on the shore (which is why I was able to photograph and record him as an individual singer).

As I sloshed through the ankle-deep water and mud. I heard all three species singing together and the toad chorus (with a few Yellow Warblers) in the distance.  I wish I could have captured the entire soundscape, but my highly-directional shotgun microphone is better for targeting specific individual singers.  (If  you would like to hear some absolutely stunning natural soundscape recordings, however, I would encourage you to listen to those made by Lang Elliott and his colleagues at

Springtime in the swamp sounds wonderful!  The mosquitoes aren't out just yet, so get your knee-high boots and go listen for who's singing out there!


  1. I find the "song" of the gnatcatcher the most exciting. Not many people know about it, much less have recorded it!

  2. I really like the Rusty Blackbird! Amazing variety notes and pitch. I caught myself singing to his song: he's a weird bird....he's a weird bird...etc. over and over. Today I caught Radiolab on NPR and there was a great story about Musical Language - it reminded me of your presentation in a broader way. See: