Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Mixed Ensembles of June


June is a time of transition in what we hear in nature. Although the avian migrants have moved on and summer resident birds have established their nesting territories, there's still plenty of birdsong. But the sounds of June are not only birds' territorial songs and begging nestlings and fledglings. The actual ensembles of June are subtly complex.

I’m always curious about who is singing with whom and when, and this year I decided to see if I could document the month with recordings. Here’s a Prelude to June: I invite you to listen while you continue reading.



I took a trip to the Holden Arboretum meadow area near the Conifer Collection early in the month, walking from Sperry Road down the long, grassy hill to Hour Glass Pond.


It was a sunny afternoon but there was a challenge on that day and every other day on either side of it.

Persistent southeast winds, not gentle summer breezes, seemed to continue for almost a week. It was odd, annoying, and I finally decided I’d give recording a try anyway. Maybe I’d be able to edit out some of the wind noise.

Are you still listening? Go back and play the track again. Birds here and there, right? And did you hear that lovely, shimmering trill? 

That was a Spring Trig – a tiny cricket that used to be heard south of the Cleveland area but has rapidly moved into my region and is establishing itself all the way to Lake Erie. I've been keeping track of everywhere I find Spring Trigs in NE Ohio.

There were two of them singing on this trail, and they were the first Spring Trigs I have recorded at the Holden Arboretum.


But for me, there’s more to this song. It’s a prelude to singing insect season – a kind of foreshadowing, perhaps. Spring Field Crickets begin singing in early May and are now followed by Spring Trigs in late May and early June into July. 


Around the same time, I went to one of my favorite locations both for observing and listening to Gray Treefrogs: the wetland trail and small boardwalk at Orchard Hills Park. These frogs come in from their solitary woodland lives to form massive wetland choruses in late May. They subsequently spread out a little but still continue calling through June into early July. 

I simply wanted to delight in listening to the chorus and being able to focus on individual frogs. I expected there would be some Green Frogs and Bullfrogs as well, but once again, there was that subtle prelude… 

There were two Spring Trigs here at Orchard Hills as well. Listen to how their songs continue right through the texture of individual frog calls, forming a continuous cricket pedal point through the amphibian chorus. You can see it on the sonogram - it's that thin,continuous line above all the frogs below it.

The frogs will become quieter as July progresses, and there will be more crickets and especially katydids with each passing week during the same time. The Spring Trigs announced the overlap and eventual dominance of insect song.


Here’s an insect “chorus” of sorts that you may not have thought of or even noticed hearing unless you were near Lake Erie. For me, it's an enchanting sound of late May or early June that I might or might not hear again until another year that I’m near the lake on just the right evening.

Midges! Huge clouds of them at twilight! Whether or not you've heard them, it’s likely a sight you’ve observed - even on National Weather Service radar.

I didn't make the connection right away. I used to wonder what that persistent hum could possibly be when I’d hear it at Lake Erie Bluffs. I would try to get a fix on the direction with my microphone – out over the lake? Was it some kind of boat engine? But I could never pinpoint it until I was right underneath the huge, gentle cloud. Fireflies were flashing all around me in the trees and shrubs on the bluffs, and the midges were directly above me. Insect light and insect sound.

I’d like to invite you to listen for another insect song in late May and in June. You’ll hear it in grassy meadows accented with buttercups and oxeye daisies when you’re listening for Bobolinks and Meadowlarks.

It’s the Northern Green-striped Grasshopper, Chortophaga viridifasciata. These grasshoppers overwinter as nymphs and you may see them in the late fall, or even during some of our increasingly common warm winters days. 

They can be green, brown, or even pink, and the adults can be multicolored beauties. 


In addition to their presence in early June meadows, I hear an additional association between the birds and the grasshoppers. Listen to the buzz at the end of this Bobolink’s call, then listen to the fluttery crackling of the Northern Green-striped Grasshopper. I hear them together every year and maybe now, you will as well.


There’s one more insect song of June that you quite possibly have not heard.  Listen first: you’ll initially hear the Wood Thrush and nesting Dark-eyed Junco that share its habitat. I recorded them at Chapin Forest Reservation in the Lake (county) Metroparks. 


Hear the buzzing sound part way through the track? Say’s Cicadas call from up in the trees, especially on ridge tops. If you’re in the northeast corner of Ohio, listen for them in June. It’s another prelude, as they are the precursors of our common Swamp Cicadas, Linne’s Cicadas, and occasional Lyric Cicadas of mid-July and August in northeast Ohio. I have yet to actually see one, but Wil Hershberger has gorgeous Say's Cicada photos in Songs of Insects online.


The multiple windy days in early June were followed by a hot, very humid period that made daytime exploration unwelcomingly miserable. The next challenge was days of high humidity and thunderstorms, which were yet another deterrent for adventures with recording equipment. While some areas didn’t get much rain (like my neighborhood), the places I wanted to visit seemed to have daily deluge parades.

You may wonder why I felt I didn’t have enough recordings.

I wanted more ensemble representation. I had birds and Spring Trigs, Gray Treefrogs and Spring Trigs, but no June recording of birds with frogs. In addition, I felt that Spring Field Crickets should be included because…well…”spring”…

I studied the radar compulsively, watching for any break in the precipitation processions until I finally had a sunset opportunity at Lake Erie Bluffs. But in addition to wind (again), the human noise factor was the worst I’d encountered all month. 



Birds were singing as the sun slipped into Lake Erie, and a couple of Spring Trigs joined them. As I was leaving, Spring Field Crickets were singing along the road into the park while the first Gray Treefrogs were beginning to call from the woods. 


I recorded them (wind and human noise and all) yet couldn’t quite let go of hearing the last evening birdsongs with the Gray Treefrogs.

The following day and evening presented more showers and thunderstorms, but there appeared to be a possible break in the precipitation just before sunset at the Oxbow Lagoon area of North Chagrin Reservation. Should I even bother? 

Of course I did. And of course, light rain was still falling when I arrived. I waited under leafy cover, listening to birds and frogs and a passing train. 


I’ll close with my June postlude for a hot, windy, stormy month of mixed ensembles.

The insects will take over the day and night stages next month and dominate the concert halls by early August. But instead of waiting impatiently for mid-July, this year I felt I really listened to June. 



Below is a map of the locations where these recordings were made. All but one are either in Lake County, Ohio or a park that is literally on its border. (The Bobolink/Northern Green-striped Grasshopper is from Geauga County.)



The parks are:

North Chagrin Reservation, Oxbow Lagoon area

Orchard Hills Park

Chapin Forest Reservation 

Holden Arboretum 

Lake Erie Bluffs (northeast corner of Lake County. There are entrances at Lane Road and at Clark Road.)

South Russell Village Park (Geauga County near Chagrin Falls and Bainbridge.
1050 Bell St, Chagrin Falls, OH 44022 is the entrance I'd suggest for "Bobolink Hill.")


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Going Home, Coming Home


I love March and April, as you probably know by now, but sometimes I wish May could slow down just a bit. I’d like a little more time to appreciate all the birds that are leaving, those that are passing through, and those that are arriving to spend the summer here.

Mid-spring brings travelers that use our welcoming backyard as a rest stop on their journey north. I’ve been keeping records since 1994, and I know who to expect and when they’re likely to pass through. There’s something reassuring about looking in my backyard record book and knowing almost to the day when various birds are likely to arrive.

There will be Yellow-rumped Warblers up in our large, old pin oak. Nashville Warblers will be in the birdbaths followed by Tennessee Warblers, and Swainson’s Thrushes will stop for a week or so in mid-May. Most years will also bring an Ovenbird, Hermit Thrush, or Wood Thrush foraging for insects in the oak leaves  from last year, and numerous warblers will search for insects high up in the oak flowers. 


 Swainson's Thrush across the driveway from our dining room window


Listening for the return of birds who nest in northeast Ohio each summer is a joyful homecoming from this human’s point of view. I call it coming “home,” because it’s where they nest and their nestlings will grow, fledge, and hopefully survive migration and their winter residences to return again next spring.

This year, I decided to make multiple visits to one of my favorite places so I could listen to the sounds of spring migration in the second half of May.

When I finished all my academic work for the semester and my students were going home, I made five trips to Lake Erie Bluffs between May 19th and 27th. Birds moving north will stop and rest in the woods and meadows overlooking Lake Erie until a south wind helps them travel across to Canada. I wanted to listen more than do a visual search. Considering how early the trees and understory leafed out during the periods of hot weather ahead of the birds’ arrival, listening was an appropriate choice.

The avian choruses changed considerably in just four days and quite significantly during the entire week I made recordings of the birds I heard and where and with who they were singing.


As you listen, keep in mind that I was up on the bluffs that overlook Lake Erie. Sometimes, you’ll actually hear the waves that I could see from where I was standing. You may also hear the breeze from the lake in the broad leaves of cottonwoods in some places and the European black alders in others. And of course, there are humans with their loud boats and motorcycles (which annoy me greatly), and there are always trains (which don’t annoy me at all).

What I heard was a complex mixture of avian travelers and birds returning to their breeding territories. I typically emphasize “listening by habitat’ in my birdsong classes, but that doesn’t quite work in May – especially on the lakeshore.

For examples, Yellow Warblers are ubiquitous at Lake Erie Bluffs. There are more of these feisty yellow beauties in the shrubby, old-growth fields that anywhere else I go. Each of them has multiple song options and can quickly switch between them, making aural identification tricky until one learns their repertoire.



But on May 19 and 20, Yellow Warblers were plentiful even in the woods along the bluff edge trails. American Redstarts seemed more likely in that habitat, which is complicated by Yellow Warblers having a song variant similar to one of the American Redstart’s multiple songs. 

Visual identification was not helpful, as these small singers were seldom apparent in the leaves and branches.

 All I could do was study my sonograms after the fact and make my best guess. I was able to confirm one American Redstart among them. 

(This is as American Redstart I recorded at Lake Erie Bluffs five years ago singing exactly the song I heard this year. I've included this recording so you can hear what enabled me to confirm the Redstart mixed in with this year's Yellow Warblers. The Redstart sonograms also looked the same both years. )

Were there other warblers? Yes, but I couldn’t always separate them out of the overall texture because there were so many birds singing simultaneously!

It was easier to distinguish the birds with the slightly lower pitches and distinctive phrase patterns of the more recognizable songs. Robins were present– they’re in every habitat. Eastern Pewee? Yes – he’d just come back, as had the Red-eyed Vireo and Great Crested Flycatcher.

Northern Cardinals and the Tufted Titmice with their multiple song types had been there all along. Carolina Wren and House Wren? I typically hear them in the edges, but they both were in the woods along with the Gray Catbirds I typically hear in more open, shrubby habitat. There was even an Eastern Towhee singing back there!

I think you’ll have a good chance at picking out the individual species in this recording.



But combining all these recent arrivals with the birds who are just passing through results in a lot of birds singing in an orchestral tutti. They were not taking solos.

I might make this exercise an annual ear training practice assignment for myself.


Another large chorus was performing in the open areas on the Lane Road side of the park, and that’s where I focused my attention next.


The number of warblers in the woods at the far western end of the park had diminished; and the Wood Thrush and Veery that joined them might actually stay for the summer. However, the primary ensemble was comprised of recently-returned summer residents in the open areas. These singers all belonged together in this habitat.

Near the shelter and the stairway down to the lake was a stand a trees and shrubs occupied by a Baltimore Oriole and also a Tufted Titmouse that was probably attracted to the nearby bird feeders. Every Baltimore Oriole has his own collection of unique melodic fragments, and male Tufted Titmice each have a repertoire of short, loud, repetitious songs. At first, I wasn’t sure which species I was hearing at times, though I was leaning toward titmouse. Ultimately, I realized it was actually both! 



Also singing on this side of Lake Erie Bluffs were Orchard Orioles, Warbling Vireos, Willow Flycatchers, Common Yellowthroats, American Goldfinches and an Indigo Bunting. A Yellow-breasted Chat was an occasional comic soloist. 

Here are two Common Yellowthroats whose personal shrubs are a little too close to each other.

              Common Yellowthroats are easy to hear but not so easy to see in their shrubs


Just the above-mentioned species together would be an impressive concert, but none of these comprised the largest sections of the ensemble.

Those were the Catbirds and Yellow Warblers: the signature sound of Lake Erie Bluffs.


The Brown Thrashers that arrived in April had already begun to quiet down – listen and watch for them in mid to late April if you’d like to hear their impressive, imitative serenades. Their role had now been taken over by the many Gray Catbirds that seemed to be singing from every large clump of grapevine-covered shrubs or venerable blackberry tangle. 


The Catbird in my recording was singing next to this small observation desk.


There are more Yellow Warblers here than seems possible; one would think that at least some must be migrants. I’m amazed each year by how many nest here and have often had the delightful experience of being literally surrounded by them. 



I’ll close with one last story about the wooded ravine along the trail connecting the west side (Lane Road) with the east side (Clark Road) of the park. I went back on May 27th, certain that by now that all those woodland Yellow Warblers would have crossed Lake Erie and the Catbirds would have relocated to more shrubby areas beyond the woods.

They were still there. And the one American Redstart I worked so hard to confirm?

Two male Redstarts flew right past my head with a female watching from behind me. 


My car was parked in the circle at the end of Lane Road, where two of my favorite singers were performing. Before I put away my recording equipment, I recorded the Orchard Oriole immediately followed by the Warbling Vireo (pictured below). 



And as I walked and listened on those trails that week, I realized the birds weren’t the only ones coming home. 

For a comparison of Yellow Warbler and American Redstart songs, see my May 2016 post  http://listeninginnature.blogspot.com/search/label/American%20Redstart 

Lake Erie Bluffs is one of the Lake County Metroparks in NE Ohio about 35 miles northeast of Cleveland.


Here’s a map of the two sides of the park and the trail that connects them. 


There is also beach access to the fascinating beach below where you can look up and observe the progression of the bluffs as they slide down to the lake. If you also look down, you'll find interesting and beautiful rocks and stones.

You can park in the lots at either the Clark Road entrance or the Lane Road entrance.  The circle at the end of Lane Road itself also has access to the trails.