I am a lazy bird watcher. This time of year is especially fun for us lazy bird watching types who are always watching and listening even though we look like we are paying careful attention to the task at hand. When I first became obsessed with birds, I was blessed to be a student of Terry Wahl, a well-known Bellingham field ornithologist, who was amazing in his ability to identify birds by sound. I followed him around for a number of years gleaning every bit of knowledge possible. Over time, I’ve come to recognize all our feathered friends by sound.
It is such a thrill when I hear one of our “early birds”, the Myrtle Warbler. A few years ago, some ornithologists much smarter than I, decided that Myrtle Warblers and Audubon Warblers were really the same species and they were “lumped” under the unimaginative name, Yellow-Rumped Warbler. When I hear their first warbling song, often in early March, it is nearly always a Myrtle Warbler just passing through to places farther north, with the Audubon Warbler arriving a few weeks later. Apparently, no one told them they are now one species.
On my morning walks, I welcome the distant travelers with a smile as they each arrive in their usual time slots, calling out to each other, “I am here. This is my territory. Stay away.” Violet-green Swallows and Rufous Hummingbirds also arrive in early March. As spring unfolds, I hear the drawn out trill of an Orange-Crowned Warbler, the “cheerup, cheerup, cheerup” call of a Western Tanager, and the quick “THREE beers” of the Olive-Sided Flycatcher among others. Such spirit-lifting sounds.
Not to be outdone, our year-round resident birds also begin announcing their presence and defending territories. One of my favorites is the Hutton’s Vireo, a plain, secretive little gray bird that goes completely unnoticed most of the year. In early spring it,s monotonous “chu-weep, chu-weep, chu-weep” demands our full attention. Also heard is the shy Brown Creeper who sings tingly high-pitched notes. If you are lucky enough to live near a marshy area, our resident Red-Winged Black Birds produce a cacophony of sounds that continue throughout the day.
So, when you think I am diligently pruning the blueberries or weeding my garden, I may actually be chuckling at the Downy Woodpecker who has been drumming up and down the trunk of a dead tree in our pasture for the past twenty minutes, in pitches ranging from high to low as it searches for just the perfect tone. This is a wonderful time of year for all of us bird-watchers, lazy or not. I hope you will go outside and listen to our early birds’ song and see if you can recognize some of the sounds described here.