Bird songs and calls fill the spring air

By Alan Huggins

For The Beachcomber

It’s spring, and bird song is in the air. What are they all excited about? Like tree frogs and the rest of us critters, birds are responding to the longer and warmer days, a burgeoning crop of food and a rising amatory urge.

But the birds are just warming up. Their chorus is on a crescendo through May and June when they will wake you at dawn, even through closed windows. Birders know this as the dawn chorus, which pulses and moves as a wave pushed by sunrise across the planet.

Here, it’s a convergence of diverse singers that fly in from all around the Western Hemisphere.

The dawn chorus is a poorly understood, yet much loved, phenomenon by naturalists around the world.

It’s very different from the everyday spring singing that birds carry on later in the morning and at dusk. It’s more like an outburst or explosion of song that is sustained with incredible volume and intensity for 20 minutes or more.

The birds seem oblivious to how their exuberant vocal display may make them more vulnerable to predators like sharp-shinned or coopers hawks.

Jon Young, founder of the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, describes the Native American traditions of bird language, which hold the dawn chorus as an avian expression of gratitude for having survived to live another day.

Perhaps the birds are exclaiming their own presence in a kind of ritual chorus of “I’m still here!”

I get goosebumps when I’m up early enough to be surrounded by it. It can be a cacophony or a symphony, depending

on perspective and the hours and quality of sleep you had the night before.

To experience the dawn chorus, I recommmend you get outside by 4:15 a.m. to a clearing with scattered trees, with possibly a nearby pond and surrounded with forest on a relatively warm and clear Sunday morning (most quiet time of the week) mid-May through June. It’s special to be present with the silence for a few minutes before the singers begin and then let the chorus sweep over you.

I can recognize the songs and calls of most birds on Vashon, even in their combined chorus, but it’s a learning process that can take years. It’s known as birding by ear. And you need to learn the songs one bird at a time. This is possible, in part, because many species of resident birds start singing before the spring migrants arrive from the tropics. Owls begin hooting in January and February, and from March through April other winter resident singers chime in, like robins, song sparrows, towhees and juncos.

Getting to know these more common birds first allows you to distinguish them from each other before the waves of arriving warblers, thrushes and flycatchers begin to fill up the chorus in May and June.

You’re doing well if you can learn three to five songs a year. Later, when you’ve learned several, you’ll notice the new ones and wonder, who is that?

A friend left me a phone message last year on the first week of May, asking for help with a “strident call” of a bird she heard and thought was a new arrival. That wasn’t much to go on, but I had a hunch given the timing of its arrival.

I returned the call and left no personal message, but I played a recording of the likely suspect from my phone to her answering machine. A day later she replied to my machine, “That’s it! How did you know, and what is it?”

It was an easy one: the olive-sided flycatcher, which whistles a strident 3-syllable “Quick, Three Beers!” accented on “three.” The name, “olive-sided,” is sometimes misheard as “all-excited,” and new birders often wonder why this flycatcher is excited all the time.

Whether or not you pursue learning birding by ear, or the raw thrill of a Sunday morning dawn chorus, I hope you can simply enjoy the music of birds throughout the season.

— Alan Huggins is an avid birder.

Birding class

Alan Huggins teaches The Enjoyment of Birds for Vashon Audubon, an introductory class on bird song that focuses on some of the beautiful and more easily learned songs one is likely to hear on Vashon.

The class is from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays, April 1 and May 13, at the Land Trust Building. Two field trips take place from 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays, April 4 and May 16. Cost: $30; all proceeds benefit conservation and education programs of Vashon Audubon. To register, e-mail Huggins at alanhugs@comcast.net.

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