On a misty morning in early April, I set out on a listening walk. The fog was so thick I could barely make out the trail in front of me. But although my visibility was almost zero, my hearing was excellent.
First I stood in our yard and listened to the assorted whistles of a flock of red-winged blackbirds that filled up several of our black walnut trees. These birds always visit us during foggy days in early spring.
I also heard the cheerful singing of Carolina wrens, the “cheer, cheer, cheerily” of American robins, the “wick-a-wick-a” call of a northern flicker, and the excitable “churring” of a red-bellied woodpecker. Song sparrows held forth from the weed tops of First Field and American goldfinches gave their “per-chik-o-ree” flight calls as they navigated overhead.
Down along our road I glimpsed a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes through the fog. One scolded on a branch above the stream; the other silently walked on a branch in the stream. Two days earlier I had heard their ringing, cascading song that out-competes rushing stream water as I walked up our road, but on this day they seemed to be silenced by the fog.
Not so the first returning blue-headed (formerly solitary) vireo. His louder, more definitive rendition of the red-eyed vireo’s song is also higher in pitch, and that morning it rang from the woods above the stream.
Sitting on the Hunters’ Bench beneath huge Norway spruces that dripped with condensed fog, I listened to the syncopated drumming of a pileated woodpecker, the musical, rising “chur-lee” of an eastern bluebird, and the buzzy trilling song of a chipping sparrow.
I walked up the Steiner/Scott Trail and was stopped in my tracks by a ruffed grouse drumming so close by that I could hear its reverberations, yet I could not locate him or his drumming log even though I sat and listened and peered through the fog at all the likely places. Instead, I was rewarded by the first singing ruby-crowned kinglet of the year. His song, a complex series of notes and warbles, always ends with “look-at-me, look-at-me, look-at-me,” only I couldn’t see him either.
Next I heard the cat-like mew of a yellow-bellied sapsucker and spotted him through the fog, sipping sap from a hickory tree that was encircled by old sap wells and overhung with grapevines.
A deer loomed like a specter ahead in the fog as I reached the Sapsucker Ridge Trail, but it looked at my silhouette and fled. Squirrels scolded unseen. At the Far Field a field sparrow sang his plaintive, minor key song the entire time I circled the field on Pennyroyal Trail.
Then a turkey gobbled below me. I sat and listened as he gobbled on and on, but again I could see nothing. A northern cardinal sang its brilliant “clear, clear, pretty, pretty, pretty” song; an eastern towhee called “che-wink,” and a white-breasted nuthatch “yanked” from a nearby tree trunk. Still, the turkey gobbled, stopping only when I continued my walk. I may not have seen him, but he must have seen me.
By the time I reached the Far Field Road, visibility had widened only to 100 feet in all directions. Below the road another unseen grouse drummed. Along First Field Trail I heard the liquid, quiet, burbling song of a brown-headed cowbird.
When I finally walked back into our yard, three hours after I had left it, towhees, cardinals, field sparrows, Carolina wrens, red-winged blackbirds, chipping sparrows, goldfinches and song sparrows called and sang in the still thick fog. After an almost silent winter, I welcomed the swelling chorus of songbirds, both residents and migrants.
In April, if I am lucky, I hear the songs of some of our wintering birds before they move on to their breeding grounds–the lilting warbles of American tree sparrows, the haunting “Oh Canada, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” of white-throated sparrows, and the musical trills of dark-eyed juncos. I am also delighted to hear what I think of as the inverted eastern meadowlark song of brown creepers and the tinkling, trilling song of winter wrens that goes on as long as ten seconds, making it the longest song of any bird in eastern North America.
Our year-round residents also tune their pipes, which, except for the Carolina wrens, have been relegated to calls for many months. “Tut-tutting” robins metamorphize into brilliant choristers; the “dee-dee-dees” of black-capped chickadees change to musical “fee-bees.” Tufted titmice “peter-peter” and mourning doves coo.
Best of all, are the returning birds, and I tick them off day after day by their songs–the thin, squeaky “zee-zees” of blue-gray gnatcatchers, the “wee-za, wee-za, wee-zas” of black-and-white warblers, the “witchedy, witchedy, witchedys” of common yellowthroats, and the “robin-with-a-cold-in-his-throat” of scarlet tanagers.
Then there are the brown thrashers, the most versatile of all American songbirds. Last April a male returned on April 16 and by the twenty-first he was courting a female in the guesthouse backyard. We sat outside after dinner and listened to unending thrasher diversity, each song repeated twice, a distinct pause, and then on to a new one. They only occasionally mimic other species and, unlike northern mockingbirds, their imitations are not very good.
So far, researchers have documented between 1000 and 2000 songs, depending on which researchers you listen to. Not only that, but brown thrashers actually sing two songs simultaneously even though they emerge from their throats as a single song, according to Barry Kent MacKay in his informative book Bird Songs.
Every year brown thrashers learn more songs despite singing only during a brief period each spring while they establish territories and attract mates. Most males hold forth exuberantly from exposed perches, their tails pointing down, making it easy to see as well as hear them.
Even on clear days, most birds are not as cooperative as thrashers so I continue to use my ears as much as my eyes. On one cold, windy morning I listened to juncos as I sat on Bird Count Trail. Suddenly, I heard a hissing sound. Through an understory of blackberry canes I spotted a displaying ruffed grouse, his tail fanned out as he shook his black ruff and then rushed at a robin on the ground nearby. When the grouse saw me, he flew off, but I remained sitting in the warm, sheltered spot.
Then I heard, as well as saw, tussling in the Japanese barberry shrubs to my left. Two male towhees emerged almost at my feet. The one in the lead picked up a twig, carried it a few feet, dropped it, hopped a few feet further, and flew. The second towhee flew back near the barberry shrubs. Both continued calling, but the one nearby sang a few bars of “drink your tea.” Later, I learned that I had witnessed “debris-carrying” which is performed by a relatively subordinate bird during territorial boundary disputes.
The climax to my aural April occurred on the twenty-fourth when our son Dave interrupted my breakfast at 7:00 a.m.
“Mom, come quick! A hermit thrush is singing on Laurel Ridge.”
Although I see hermit thrushes during both the spring and fall migrations, they rarely sing, and when they do, their songs are brief. So I didn’t have much hope as I dropped everything, pulled on my hiking boots and, with my apron still tied around my waist, ran up Guesthouse Trail behind Dave.
But three-quarters of the way up the ridge, the hermit thrush was still singing. He was so close that we heard every nuance of his ethereal song. Then, a particularly strident blue-headed vireo began to sing, silencing the hermit thrush. I waited for a short time and heard nothing more.
Finally, I continued to the top of the ridge and turned right on Laurel Ridge Trail. After a couple hundred feet, I heard the hermit thrush singing again and sat down as reverently as if I were in a church to listen to his organ-like tones. For a short time, he sang a solo. Then the first ovenbird of the year piped up with his far inferior “tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher” song and two blue-headed vireos, one on either side of the hermit thrush, joined in.
This time he was not deterred by his competition. The hermit thrush was clearly the master and the other birds mere apprentices and they quickly subsided.
I listened raptly as he sang, but slowly the volume of his song lessened as he moved further along the ridgetop. After half an hour, the concert was over. I never saw him fly. I never even caught a glimpse of him. He remained an enchanting, disembodied voice in the spring forest.
The late Sigurd Olson, in his book The Listening Point wrote, “Everyone has a listening point somewhere…some place of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe…” His listening point was on the remote shore of a North Woods’ lake in Minnesota. Mine is on a mountain in Pennsylvania’s ridge-and-valley province, especially in spring when hearing birds, like hermit thrushes and our resident wood thrushes, is even better than seeing them.