Thursday, May 19, 2016

May: not necessarily the best month to learn bird songs!

If you’ve taken one of my bird song classes or attended one of my spring bird song programs, you’ve probably noticed that I often say that May is NOT the month to start learning bird song. But why not? There’s so much singing going on!

Yes. That’s exactly why. Everyone’s singing at once. We have year-round residents, summer residents arriving, migrants passing through and sometimes there are birds stopping over in habitats where they wouldn't typically be found.

I encourage people to learn the year-round residents thoroughly in late February and March as each species begins singing. Pay close attention to those birds that have multiple song forms, like Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals. 
Song Sparrows will return in late March, and this is the time to learn as much as you can about their songs. You won't be able to learn every one of their many songs, as each individual has a substantial repertoire, but you'll be able to get a good general sense of what makes a Song Sparrow's song identifiable. 

Once you know the Song Sparrows, it will be easier to learn the Yellow Warblers that are often found with them at the end of April.

One of the biggest challenges in bird song identification is trying to focus on one bird song at a time where there are so many possibilities. That's what happens in May, and this post is about how the song choices can quickly get very complicated!

Let’s return to the concert hall that was my focus last May: Lake Erie Bluffs in Lake County.

I wrote about the Yellow Warblers there last year in “A Study in Yellow.”  Yellow Warblers have a number of songs, and it’s an interesting challenge to observe and become familiar with their repertoire.  Huge numbers of them nest at Lake Erie Bluffs, and during migration they can be found in the open woods as well as their beloved shrubby, more open habitat.

I went back into the woods off the main path to look and listen for birds that might be there. As I started walking back into the woods, I continued to hear Yellow Warblers singing their assortment of song types, including birds switching from one song type to another. Listen to this bird's excellent demonstration:

But one singer seemed just a little more decisive and emphatic. 

Wait a minute. Wasn’t this exactly where I heard and saw an American Redstart last year? 

(Photos taken from exactly the location of the story)

But Yellow Warblers have a song with a downturn at the end that’s reminiscent of a Redstart. Listen to this Yellow Warbler:

Now take a look at the sonograms. The first song is a Redstart, and the second two are two different Yellow Warblers. The sonograms look more different than the songs sound to mere human ears.

The frequency (pitch) ranges of their songs are the same. Notice that the song lengths are also about the same. The tone quality is very similar, and the songs are repeated over and over. 

But this one was Redstart for sure – I watched him sing as I recorded him.


Redstarts are notorious for their multiple song types. How many people have said, “When in doubt, it’s probably a Redstart?”

Here’s another Redstart song from the same bird, while a second Redstart was singing a related song nearby.

Yellow warblers have a song that sounds somewhat similar to that one, too. 

Fortunately, once migration is over, the Redstarts will be in the woods and all the Yellow Warblers will likely be out in more open areas. If you want to take on the challenge of Redstarts, there shouldn’t be any Yellow Warblers with them then!

June will be easier, as birds will be settled in their nesting territories in their preferred habitats. Sorting out songs by habitat is very helpful then.  In May, though, there’s no telling who will be singing where and how many birds will be singing simultaneously. 

More stories inspired by my trips to Lake Erie Bluffs will be coming.  I’d encourage anyone in the area to explore this wonderful park - especially the trails from the Lane Road shelter to the west. There's are a lot of songs and stories waiting to be discovered along those trails.

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