Friday, January 16, 2015

Visiting the Relatives

Snow.  Bitter cold.  It was early January in Cleveland, and the week before “spring” semester would begin.  Fortunately, my partner Wendy and I were visiting her family on the northern California coast, which was sunny, calm, and enjoying unusually warm temperatures in the upper 50s to upper 60s.  Although the recent storms had little impact on the severe drought, things were certainly greener than I’d expected.  Needless to say, we were outside for as much as possible!

I’ve begun to learn a handful of common birds during our family visits, but this time I had a specific question in mind: how are the species that are present in both NE Ohio and the northern California coastal areas similar and different?  Would I be able to see a difference, and would I be able to hear a difference? 

Among the first birds we saw were the White-crowned Sparrows.  They are year-round residents on the northern California coast, and they are extremely common.  Here in Ohio, we’re happy to briefly see and hear them during their spring and fall migration.  In northern California, they can be found hopping around car tires in the parking lots and popping up from the lupine on the bluffs above the shore.

I noticed a couple of years ago that they looked a little different, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I had a photo of one from another trip, but I’ve never used it in my programs because it just didn’t look “right.”

This time, however, I had the Sibley field guide app on my phone, and the hard copy of the book was at the house.  David Sibley writes in the Sibley Guide to Birds that East Taiga (boreal forest) White-crowneds have pink bills and the Pacific birds have yellow bills.  Cornell’s "All About Birds" web site says the same, and adds that “birds that breed east of Hudson Bay and in the Rockies tend to have pink bills with black lores that merge with the black head stripes” and the Pacific birds have “duller white head stripes.”  Sibley also writes that the Pacific birds are “stockier and browner overall” and that “the bend of the wing is yellow (vs. white)”

That seemed true to me, as the White-crowned Sparrows we typically see have absolutely brilliant white head stripes.  This was not the case for any of the individuals we saw in California last week.  I had never thought about the black lores, but look!  Here are two birds from Ohio.



Do you see the absence of the black in front of the eyes and by the beak in this northern California sparrow?  Notice, too, the yellow bill instead of the pink bills of the Ohio visitors.

I listened to the western songs on the app, and they definitely were different from the predictable songs we hear when the White-crowneds come through in early May. This track has three songs from one bird in eastern Cuyahoga County followed by three songs from our Cleveland-area back yard a few years later. 

But what were the chances I’d hear one singing in California during the first week of January?  Actually, not so slim when it’s sunny and 60 degrees!  When we heard a song in the distance that sounded rather like those on the app, we tracked down a group of White-crowneds.  One was singing up a storm, and this was his song accompanied by waves in the background. (The second arrow will give you his song without the background.)

Sibley writes that “Taiga breeders sing buzzy, fast feee odi odi zeeeeee zaaaaa zooo with little variation.” His description of the Pacific birds is different; clearer, more rapid  (see page 495 for the whole description),  and he notes that they have many local dialects.  The songs I listened to on Cornell’s All About Birds site were Pacific individuals, and their songs, too, were quite different from those we hear at home.  

I found this fascinating!

White-crowneds weren’t the only sparrows in the lupine, either.  There were a few Golden-crowned Sparrows – new birds for us, though they weren’t singing.  Song Sparrows, however, were almost as common as White-crowneds, and this surprised us.   

We think of Song Sparrows as birds of marshes and pond edges. They can be in meadows, too, but the first place I look for them in the spring is near some water.  Some overwinter in NE Ohio, as you can see in the photo below.  

The northern California coastal birds, however, were in vegetation that can thrive in very sandy, dry soil near the cliff that overlook the noisy surf below.  Instead of cattails, these birds were running along the tops of the lupine bushes. They also seemed a  little darker, with heavier, darker streaking. 

 And some of them were singing!  This time, however, the songs didn’t seem so different from those “back East.” Each Song Sparrow has a repertoire of different songs, and the  ones I heard in California seemed that they might fit into the pond edge soundscape at home.  Here’s one from the Holden Arboretum in Lake County, NE Ohio…

…and the singer on the coast.  You can even hear the surf in the background.

Finally there were Red-winged Blackbirds.  Many of us know their triumphantly noisy proclamations (which Wendy says sounds like "All for MEEEEE!" rather than "conk-ka-REEE!")  Here’s a marshy pond at the Holden Arboretum in NE Ohio with Red-winged Blackbirds hurling epithets one after another around its circumference.   

But when I first heard this soloist up on someone’s roof, I was puzzled.  It didn’t sound like the most common sounds our Red-wingeds, though I do hear a similar call at times.  Is what I recorded in California the primary song of the West Coast Red-winged Blackbirds?

I listened to California Red-winged Blackbird recordings in Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Macaulay Library, and this recording by Geoffrey Keller was an excellent match.  In addition, David Sibley wrote in the Sibley Guide to Birds that "many western birds sing a less musical oooPREEEEEom."  That is exactly how it sounded to me.

As we walked and listened, we began to hear a larger flock somewhere off in the distance.  We finally found them – maybe as many as 100 – in a dense area of bulrushes growing in a shallow pond.   What a joyful sound!  They were fussing, displaying, and flying around the marsh, They were certainly raucous, but still…their calls sounded like the individual on the roof rather than the Red-winged Blackbirds we know so well.  

Here’s a mixed flock of blackbirds from the Holden Arboretum east of Cleveland in late February.  Red-winged blackbirds are the majority, though there are also Grackles and Cowbirds mixed in with them.

Here’s the Red-winged Blackbird flock from California:

Can you hear the difference?  Here's another recording of them. 

Although they seemed just as full of attitude, we found their chorus to have an enchantingly different sound.

The Red-tailed Hawks, Hermit Thrushes and Fox Sparrows were darker than ours.  The House Finches looked and sounded the same, though there may be differences I would have noticed if we’d been able to study them up close.  Yellow-rumped Warblers were common, but these appeared to be the Audubon’s race, not the “Myrtle” race; their throats were yellow instead of white.  We saw a number of Western Meadowlarks, but the differences between these birds and the Eastern Meadowlarks would have been tricky to discern while they were in non-breeding plumage and not singing.

But it’s the Red-winged Blackbirds and the White-crowned Sparrows that will really stay with me, and it’s because we learned them by listening.

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