A Glimpse of Nature -- Back in Town

Sunday’s walk was splendid, a fresh green feast of loveliness savored in perfect weather.  My eyes hopped from wild geraniums to jack-in-the-pulpits, from tender ferns to mature skunk cabbages, landing eventually on show-stopping lady’s slippers.  


Yet my chief delight was the soundscape.  I love to hear nature:  frogs in early spring, crickets in autumn, tinkling streams, howling wind, and, in May, bird song.  Yes, some birds (such as great horned owls) nest earlier, while others hold off until summer (think goldfinches), but May is the peak season for those who listen.  Sunday’s chorus included a mix of residents and seasonal visitors.  Northern cardinals and blue jays certainly made themselves heard, but so did spring arrivals like veeries, great crested flycatchers . . . and warblers.  I bet you knew where this was headed!  

Last week’s “What Is It!” included songs from two warblers that are easily heard.  First, we had the ovenbird. Listen again.


Ovenbird, Marshfield, MA, May 5, 2020

This species, as you can see from the photo, has a plain appearance that effectively camouflages the bird in its forest-floor habitat, but there is nothing discreet about its voice!  Its loud “teacher, teacher” song rings through the mature forests where the ovenbird lives.  [To my ears, the song sounds like a crescendo of ta-CHA’s.]  In suitable habitat – extensive “closed-canopy” forests with little undergrowth – this vocal bird is difficult to ignore.  If you patiently zero in on the sound, you may see this smaller-than-sparrow bird singing from a low branch or walking on the forest floor.

Our second mystery voice belonged to a yellow warbler.  Here it is for review.


Yellow Warbler, Halifax, MA, May 3, 2020

As you can see, the male of this species is very yellow, with a little yellow-green on top and some chestnut streaks on the breast.  My image, taken at dusk, doesn’t do justice to the bird.  The individual in the photo sang from a small tree near a marsh.  The bird in the audio was recorded in dense vegetation along a small stream.  Woodland edges and streamside thickets are typical yellow warbler habitats during the breeding season.  They prefer small trees and large shrubs such as willow and alder.  Once a listener recognizes the yellow’s cheerful, rapid song – “sweet, sweet, sweet, little more sweet!” – it may be possible to see this species at eye level . . . which brings us to some of the challenges that warblers, as a group, pose.

This family of birds suffers a public relations problem.  The New World warblers thrill birders and intimidate almost everyone else.  As a group, they are perceived as little, yellowish birds who flit about treetops feeding during spring migration.  Males look different from females, as do adults from immatures, and when they pass through again in fall, they sport new colors and patterns.  Without sharp eyes, a strong neck, an excellent memory, and time off during May, identification might seem impossible.  From one amateur to another, my advice would be to shift your goal from the family to some of the individuals.  Learn to recognize (and enjoy) one or two species at a time and let their habitat, behavior, and voice assist you.

This week, be alert to the songs of ovenbirds and yellow warblers.  Then, to spread your wings, listen for the next two birds.  If you locate all four, you’ll have a head-start on next year’s migration.  If not, you’ll surely find something interesting as you walk under pines, along a stream, past a marsh, and through a mature deciduous forest.


Common Yellowthroat

Image courtesy of Dan Pancamo, CC BY-SA 2.0

Habitat: open areas with thick, low vegetation such as marshes Behavior: forages for insects in low, dense growth Song: loud, fast witchity-witchity-witchity-witchity-wit        

Pine Warbler

Note:  You may need to increase the volume for this clip.

Image courtesy of USFWSmidwest Public domain 

Habitat: pine forest Behavior: forages and sings high in pine trees Song: a soft trill A word to the wise: don't delay. Once these birds establish territory and find a mate, they no longer need to sing with vigor. This is especially true of the pine warblers who arrive earlier than most.


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