Wood Thrushes Sparing at First Light

The eastern deciduous forest in Western Pennsylvania is full of bird songs in the spring.

The morning fog filled the landscape with a sweet damp smell and dawn had only just started. It was late May in Western Pennsylvania. The eastern deciduous forest surrounded me. A few hemlocks grew on some north-facing slopes, but mostly oaks, cherries and maples dominated the landscape. The gurgling sounds of the stream filled the atmosphere and contributed to the sublime feeling.

I had just rounded a corner when I heard the first morning notes of a Wood Thrush. The flute-like whistle resonated through the forest and immediately a second and then a third began to sing. I stopped my walk to listen and imagined this cinnamon bird with a streaked breast sitting a dozen feet up in a tree proclaiming its territory. Since moving to Seattle, I’ve missed hearing this bird in spring and summer. When I lived in Maryland, I looked forward to its return in late May. One would sing from the oaks just up the street from my house, and I’d listen from my backyard.

 

We often call migratory birds like the Wood Thrush that breed in the United States “our birds,” but is that the right characterization when they spend most of the year farther south. Wood Thrushes winter from southern Mexico south through Panama, spending at least as much time there as they do on the breeding grounds.

In 2009, I was invited to do a Christmas Bird Count in Costa Rica and arrived late at night before the count day. The next morning, we met at 4 AM to begin our search. The first bird we detected was the “pit-pit” call of a Wood Thrush. Later when talking with folks, I thanked them for sharing “their bird” with us in the United States and told them about the thrill I had each spring on hearing them sing.

Although populations of Wood Thrushes are still strong across the northeast, their numbers have decreased by more than 60% since 1966. They are now listed as a species of “Continental Concern” in the 2016 State of North American Birds’ Watch List.

Other birds, including chickadees, titmouse, cardinals, and Carolina wrens began to join the wood thrushes in morning melody. I closed my eyes to take in the beautiful sounds before continuing my walk.

 

The Yellow-breasted Chat at Umtanum Creek

The quaking aspens glowed in the soft light.

The dawn sky was just starting to lighten as I snuck into the quaking aspen grove, trying not to make a sound, to sit and listen to the day’s first chorus of birds. About a mile up the Umtanum Creek from the Yakima River, the tumbling water in the stream and the wind in the aspens were the only sounds present. The hot, dry air had the smell of fresh hay and reminded me of summers on our Pennsylvania farm. The sun wouldn’t rise for another 50 minutes as I settled, leaning against the smooth bark of a young aspen tree to listen and wait.

About ten minutes later, the first squawk happened, and it came from the far side of the grove, too far for me to record the sound well. A yellow-breasted chat had begun its morning song, a mixture of whistles, cackles, screeches, mews, caw notes, chuckles, rattles, gurgles, and pops. Expecting a mixture of bird songs including Lazuli buntings, black-headed grosbeaks, Bewick’s wrens, spotted towhees and maybe some warblers or vireos in addition to the chat, I patiently waited.

The habitat in Umtanum Creek Valley was a mixture of sagebrush, riparian areas, and aspen groves. The wind rustled the leaves and the air was fresh and dry.

After a quarter hour, a bunting sang far in the distance, but nothing other than the chat was nearby. Maybe at that point in early June, all the birds were incubating eggs or caring for young and not that interested in advertising their presences, so I climbed to my feet to walk around the aspen grove and approach the singing chat.

The yellow-breasted chat was on the backside of a large elderberry bush that sat up against the aspen grove, and he was hidden from my view. His song was loud though, raucous and full of variability. Standing in chest high grass, I listened to hear when he repeated individual songs, but I lacked the experience to recognize so many different notes, whistles, and screeches. A song would radiate out from the bush; then a pause happened before the next one jumped out. He reminded me of a person who liked to hear himself talk non-stop; not listening to what anyone else had to say. An hour later, he was still singing and had not made an appearance above the bush. I left to hike up the valley and look for other things in this wild country.

 

Dr. Donald Kroodsma, an expert on bird songs, once answered a question about how he learned so much about songs by saying he listens with his eyes. Here is sonogram movie of 10 minutes of this yellow-breasted chat’s singing. His calls are shown by intense red, and where the sonogram becomes almost white, it is showing the loudest notes. Individual calls, songs, and screeches range from 1,500 kilohertz to almost 15,000 kilohertz. Note the variability of his calls and how he mixes them up in a random order. This chat may be responding to other chats in the distance, or he may simply be singing what he wants. A lazuli bunting and an American goldfinch can be heard in the background and appear on the sonogram.

A Spring Mourning at Magnuson Park

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond's edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond’s edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A light mist hit the window shield as I turned into Seattle’s Magnuson Park. Thick clouds covered the sky, and a light breeze made it chilly, but the birds were singing on this Monday morning a little after dawn. A musical, high pitch-chipping trill came from the alders just as I entered the trail around the ponds. A male junco sat about 5 feet down from the top on a side branch, right beside the trunk of an alder sapling. He’d leaned his head back, opened his bill slightly, and let lose a rapid tempo song. I imagined him saying “Spring is here and this is my territory!”

 

 

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Buffleheads, green-winged teal, gadwalls, mallards and pied-billed grebes floated lazily in the still water, slight movements of their bodies causing concentric ripples to spiral out. The buffleheads dove, surfaced, and dove again, searching for food. Each dive was acrobatic as they almost jump up to plunge head first into the water. Even though it was now 7 AM, one great-blue heron still had not woken up. His head held down by his right side for the entire time I watched.

Songs sparrows alternated between their “maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” and “Madge; Madge; Madge pick beetles off; the water’s hot” songs. Several sang simultaneously, not letting the other hog the morning airtime. Numerous red-winged blackbirds perched high in trees or on cattails giving their harsh gurgling trill.

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

 

 

Spring had arrived at last. Migrating yellow-rumped warblers darted everywhere, and even a few frogs croaked from the pond’s edge. Smelling deep, the damp air was fresh and alive, invigorating my soul. New leaves popped out on the tips of branching casting a green glow to the landscape. Time for breakfast and heading to work.

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tree Swallows at Wylie Slough

Tree swallows have blue-green back plumage and a black eye mask. Their undersides are white. Note how long the primaries are on this bird, extending to beyond the tail when folded. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tree swallows have blue-green back plumage and a black eye mask. Their undersides are white. Note how long the primaries are on this bird, extending to beyond the tail when folded. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A clear sweet high pitch whistle came through the air. It sounded a little like a whine that moved into a gurgle and then to a chirp. The soft sound began again after a short pause. The sun was out and the air cool as I walked along the dike at Wylie Slough in Skagit County. It was only the third week of March, and I was surprised to hear the song of a Tree Swallow at this time in Washington. I scanned the branches for this small insectivores bird. They call from a perch near a possible nesting cavity.

The white underside of the Tree Swallow shows clearly as this bird grips to a small twig. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The white underside of the Tree Swallow shows clearly as this bird grips to a small twig. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An iridescent green streak shot from a branch, its long pointed wings propelling the bird forward. The swallow began to do acrobatic twists and turns as it attempted to catch insects on the wing. The bird flew out over the marsh, only a few feet above the brown vegetation, looped around a dead tree that rose out of the shallow water, twisting to the right and out of sight.

Wylie Slough is near the outlet of a Skagit River branch. A few years ago, this area was restored to tidal wetlands, removing dikes that had allowed part of it to be farmed, reestablishing tidal flow, and creating habitat for salmon and wetland birds. The dike runs several miles through this wetland and provides excellent viewing of the restoring wetlands.

A tree swallow giving its high pitch song near a nest box along Wylie Slough in Skagit County, Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow giving its high pitch song near a nest box along Wylie Slough in Skagit County, Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The tree swallow flew in past my head, only a dozen feet away, and landed on a dead branch, looking away from me. The bird began to preen its feathers, twisting its head to grab individual feathers with its delicate bill and pull them through, straightening the barbules, making sure the feather functioned properly. The swallow crunched its neck in contortions to preen feathers along its back.

A tree swallow peers down from a perch on a dead snag at Wylie Slough along the Skagit River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow peers down from a perch on a dead snag at Wylie Slough along the Skagit River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A second bird alighted just inches from the first and began to sing softly, a mated pair. A small wooden bird box was attached to the trunk of a red alder 10 feet off the ground. The pair had appropriated this location for a future nest. Several woodpecker holes were in the dead trees, and this pair could choose to use one of them. I left the pair resting on the branch and continued down the dike.

A nesting box hung from another tree at eye level, and I stopped to watch if this one had a prospecting pair. Two minutes later, a swallow swooped low over the open water beyond the tree, twisting a few times, before flying onto a knot above the box. It sat, staring down at me, bending its head to the side as if it wasn’t sure what I was. The bird stayed only a second before dashing off in the opposite direction, but in less than a minute it returned, quickly followed by a second one. One bird flew down from the perch to hang on the side of the box, sticking its head in and out of the hole, but never fully entering the cavity, before it flew out on a foraging trip.

Over the next week or so, many more tree swallows will return to this wetland. The abundant dead trees in the recently flooded fields should be full of woodpecker holes and would provide many places for swallows to nest. If sites are available, tree swallows will nest in dense numbers, just defending the cavity and a small space around it. I stopped to listen to a bird give its high pitch song, thinking that spring is rapidly progressing in Washington. In two days, it will be the spring equinox.

A tree swallow sits crosswise on a dead branch. The blue-green feathers of its head glisten in the sun and its white breast feathers so their shoft texture. These insectivorous birds use keen eye-sight to catch flying insects. often foraging over wetlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow sits crosswise on a dead branch. The blue-green feathers of its head glisten in the sun and its white breast feathers so their shoft texture. These insectivorous birds use keen eye-sight to catch flying insects. often foraging over wetlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Throng of Snow Geese

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The cacophony was loud even with all the windows closed in my car, so I opened them to take in the cackle. The car filled with honks, guffaws, and the fresh sweet damp air of a sunny day in late March. I parked quickly and jogged to the post and rail fence that bordered the dirt road. Beginning just 50 feet beyond the barrier stretched ten acres of moving, bobbing, and honking white; 5,000 or more snow geese covered the wet field like a quilt. A hundred people leaned against the fence, watching this mass of birds jockeying to be in the right place. The geese were like a swarm of humans covering a high school football field after the homecoming game.

An adult snow goose in white plumage stands alert to check for possible danger before returning to feed. A few black primaris stick out from the folded wing. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An adult snow goose in white plumage stands alert to check for possible danger before returning to feed. A few black primaries stick out from the folded wing. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snow Geese with brown feathers on their necks and bodies are birds that are less than a year old. They stay with their parents throughout the first winter after hatching. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snow Geese with brown feathers on their necks and bodies are birds that are less than a year old. They stay with their parents throughout the first winter after hatching. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Large numbers of snow geese winter in Washington’s Skagit County, and I had come to see if any were still here. By late March, they could have started for their nesting areas on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska. These geese roam the Skagit Flats throughout the winter, grazing on grass, sedges, and willows, or eating leftover potatoes or spilled grain, or digging up tubers and roots. This flock stretched for several hundred yards back into the field and at least 400 yards wide.

 

Individual birds standing on the ground were mostly white, their black outer wing feathers being covered by body feathers. Their pink bills and dark eyes gave contrast to the white body feathers. Many still had a little light brown on some feathers; these were young hatched last summer. Small to large groups came in from the east to land with the expanding feeding frenzy, and these flying individuals showed the distinctive black wing tips and white bodies as they approached on fixed wings.

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. Mt. Baker rises in the background and is mostly covered by clouds. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. Mt. Baker rises in the background and is mostly covered by clouds. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Families stay together throughout the winter and talk to each other incessantly as they feed or fly. It is like a clan of humans at a theme park, chattering to each other about what the see, where they are, and where to next. Really, it is about staying together in a crowd. This chatter carried across the field, filling the air with babble like at a noisy crowd at a fair. Groups of two to five would decide to move locations and rise on strong wing beats to 20 to 50 feet above the ground, flying swiftly over the flock before deciding on another place to land. Each then fixes its wings, beginning a gradual glide toward the field, finally holding its wings almost vertically to create strong drag, alighting with a gentle step. Displaced geese were chattering back at the new arrivals, trying to hold onto their piece of the dinner table.

Five snow geese fly together across Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Five snow geese fly together across Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Some started to leave this field and head west to another. Groups of two to fifty birds would rise and fly west over my head and out of sight. Single individuals would come back to fly around the field, relentlessly honking, probably looking for their missing family group. Glacier peak rose above the Cascades to the southeast and the birds that passed in front of this distant volcano looked picturesque against the white covered peak. To the northeast, low hanging clouds mostly covered Mt. Baker but flying flocks with the distant cloud draped mountains reminded me of landscape watercolors in the Smithsonian Museum.

A large flock of snow geese take off in unison and fly a loop around Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A large flock of snow geese take off in unison and fly a loop around Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

In a roar of wings and honks, three-quarters of the birds rose into the air at once, thousands jockeying for position, gaining altitude and attempting to stay with their families. I could sense the massive exertion of their breast muscles contracting to pull their open wings down quickly and give them lift. The power of these sprinters oozing across the field as the mass rose at a steep angle into the air made me feel taller and stronger. Those in front of me started south before they turned to fly directly overhead, creating a moving shadow across me. I crooked my neck to watch the white mass pass, wondering how they avoided crashing into each other in the turmoil. The honking made it impossible to hear myself think. The commotion lasted only a few minutes, but the energy filled the air for a long time after the birds had disappeared to the west. A thousand birds still feeding a hundred yards across the field seemed like an anticlimax to the spectacle.

Snow Geese often fly in a dense cloud when they first take off from a feeding location. Only after they become airborne to they form into a more organized flying flock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese often fly in a dense cloud when they first take off from a feeding location. Only after they become airborne to they form into a more organized flying flock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I watched for another 20 minutes as individual geese flew back and forth between the two feeding locations looking for lost comrades. The cacophony had dissipated, but the sweet smell of spring remained.

A small flock of snow geese fly in front of Mt. Baker as they take off from a feeding group in the Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly in front of Mt. Baker as they take off from a feeding group in the Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A single flying snow goose shows the black primaries and white secondaries of the wings and the aerodynamic nature of their body in flight. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A single flying snow goose shows the black primaries and white secondaries of the wings and the aerodynamic nature of their body in flight. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly directly over head, showing the use of their wings to gain thrust and lift. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly directly over head, showing the use of their wings to gain thrust and lift. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Fascination with Flight

The adult glaucous-winged gull flew right over the boat as we drifted in Puget Sound. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The adult glaucous-winged gull flew right over the boat as we drifted in Puget Sound. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The glaucous-winged gull came flying straight toward the boat. It’s wings fixed in a steady glide into the wind. The bird’s speed and the wind created enough lift to allow the bird to close the hundred yards to me without once flapping its wings. The bird was going to fly directly over our boat, and I would be able to look right up at this marvelous example of flight.

Have you every wished that you could fly? When I was young, I dreamed about what it would be like to soar like the red-tailed hawk that flew above our farm fields or to fly like a barn swallow low over the hayfield twisting and turning to catch insects. This gull, so aerodynamic, glided right toward me. Envy seemed to be surging through my veins. As the bird approached, I almost felt weightless and imagined extending my arms to join it as it passed.

My body tensed and my heart sped up as I stared at this perfect example of aerodynamics. This bird’s feathers create a streamlined body, and its skeleton has been modified to be light but sturdy. Most bird bones are hollow, filled with air, and yet can support the torque created by muscle contraction and the pressures of flight. Large breast muscles attached to their sternum provide the power to flap their wings, and their well-developed cardiovascular system can pump large amounts of oxygenated blood to these muscles. They can sustain vigorous activity for long periods of flying, but this gull seemed to glide effortlessly.

Holding my arm in front of me, I marveled at how a bird’s wing is a modified version of my primitive vertebrate forelimb. Bird wings have a humerus, ulna, and radius. The digits are reduced to three, and some bones in the hand are fused together. The primaries — outer flight feathers — attach to the hand bones, and the secondaries attach to the ulna. These flight feathers provide the power for flight. The downward movement of the wing creates lift as well as thrust forward. The upper surface of the wing bends up, creating a convex surface and a longer distance for air to travel than it does across the bottom of the wing. Consequently, the air moves faster over the wing’s top, reducing air pressure, and creating lift.

“Wow. Look at that, amazing”, came from the crowd around me on the boat. I had just missed seeing an orca breach. The gull, however, passed directly over me, and I turned to watch it continue past our boat. I smiled wondering how many of my whale-watching colleagues thought about the wonders of flight.

What is it about a tree anyways?

Many bird species seem to come to this ponderosa pine during the time I sat and watched. (Thomas Bancroft)

Many bird species seem to come to this ponderosa pine during the time I sat and watched. (Thomas Bancroft)

I was bumping and jostling along North Wenas Road, a dusty dirt road with lots of potholes when I saw a silvery flash near the top of a lone Ponderosa pine. The pine sat in a sea of sagebrush and grasses, a towering dark green monolith in the expanse of short brownish green. I pulled over to scan the tree with binoculars and see what might have made the flash.

As I raised my binoculars to my eyes, a Lewis’s woodpecker flew out from the tree making a broad circle over the road and back into the tree. The whole time it was squawking. It landed by a second woodpecker and I could see the two of them flashing their wings as they greeted each other. Courtship! It must be spring.

Within seconds of seeing this, a red-shafted flicker began its boisterous call. At first, I thought maybe the Lewis’s woodpecker could call just like a flicker but the flicker kept calling over the next few minutes. Eventually, the flicker popped out on a dead branch near the top of the tree so I could confirm that it was a flicker and not the woodpecker imitating it.

While all this was going on, a bullock’s oriole made a brief appearance near the top left side of the tree. Its yellow feathers glistened in the afternoon sun and I could see it looking back and forth into the foliage at the top: a nice male with its black back feathers and black eye stripe. After just a second or two, it dove back into the dark green foliage. I heard the gruff scratchy notes of the oriole as it hopped through the foliage.

A European starling sat on one of the dead branches along the left side of the tree and began to give its screech call. At first it startled me, for I didn’t think this was quite the right habitat for a starling, but sure enough it was sitting in this ponderosa pine.

As I watched this menagerie, I realized that both an American robin and a house wren sang in the background. I couldn’t tell if they too were in the tree, but they definitely were part of this meeting place. A pair of red-tailed hawks came over the crest of the hill behind the pine and began to circle lazily on the thermals rising from the sagebrush expanse. They too called a few times.

You can listen to this meeting place in the backcountry outside of Ellensburg.

As I sat listening, I realized I could also hear crickets calling too. The tree reminded me of a coffee shop where so many people come to meet, often oblivious to others who have come to meet too. I smiled and tipped my hat to this old ponderosa pine and its important role as gathering place. I wonder how many decades it has served this function in these rolling hills.

I would love to hear if you have seen a tree function in a similar way for wild things?

The Sweet Elegant Song of the White-crowned Sparrow

A male white-crowned sparrow sings from the top of a cedar in Washington Park by Anacortes. (Thomas Bancroft)

A male white-crowned sparrow sings from the top of a cedar in Washington Park by Anacortes. (Thomas Bancroft)

We had been birding all morning as we climbed onto viewpoint above Burroughs Channel. It was almost noon and we had a good morning searching for seabirds and shorebirds, pretty much ignoring the little tweets.  The sweet whistle followed quickly by several more whistles and buzzes, therefore, caught me off guard.  I stopped to listen again.

We had pulled into Washington Park at Anacortes to search for buffleheads and surf scoters on Rosario Strait. We found several feeding out from the boat landing. They repeatedly dove staying down for 20 to 30 seconds while they searched for tasty morsels. My birding partner spotted a white flash way off shore and we discovered a pigeon guillemot stretching on the gentle swells. With each stretch of its wings, its white patches flashed in the noon sun and the white contrasted with the black body plumage. A common loon in its new nuptial plumage cruised by as we climbed back into the car to head to Green Point. At the point, five red-necked grebes bobbed in the waves; they had shifted from their drab winter plumage to their nuptial plumage with the distinctive rufous neck that gives them their name. We, also, heard the loud cries of a black oystercatcher pair and ran to the edge but to no avail.

So what was this sweet whistle I just heard above Burroughs Channel?

As we strolled down the slope toward the source of the whistle, I realized that we could hear a line of these songs echoing in both directions through the scattered cedars and pines. These songs declared that each vocalist owns their individual patch of habitat. Finally, one called in a cedar not far from where we stood. I crept around the edge of the tree to find a white-crowned sparrow on the top singing its sweet melody. We stood for quite a while listening to him bellowing out his song as strongly as any opera singer.  In 1772, J. R. Foster got it right when he called this one of the most “elegant little species.” This little bird is one of the most intensely studied species in the world. It breeds across western United States and north into Canada and across the Arctic. Just like people, these little guys have distinctive dialects depending on where in their range they breed. A number of years ago when I heard one singing in Denali National Park, I remember that I didn’t recognize it. It looks like I still can’t seem to keep all their dialects straight. We found a nice bench just above the cedar and sat to eat our lunch and listen to his solo version of “I will always love you.”

Here it is if you would like to hear it too.

 

A Pacific Wren sings “it is spring” in Washington.

I rounded a corner on the trail and heard a Pacific wren begin its high energy song. Seattle has had some wonderful warm days in early April, and I guess this little bird has decided that spring has arrived. Dr Kroodsma, a world expert on bird songs, characterized these little guys as having the “pinnacle of song complexity.” They have a large repertoire of notes that they can arrange in different sequences. Their song ends up being more complex than their close relatives the winter wren of eastern United States or the Eurasian wren. I edged along the trail looking for the bird. I was hiking in St Edwards Park along the shore of Lake Washington. It should be sitting on a branch a few feet to a dozen or more off the forest floor. The call came from the far side of a clump of hemlocks. The wren is only 4 inches long, and dark mottled brown so it blends into the dappled forest light extremely well. I could not find it. The singing male is probably cocking his tail high behind his back and twisting back and forth as it repeatedly sings. A male’s song helps him defend his territory from other males and helps him try to entice a female to join him for the season. Listen to this little guy sing his heart out.

Does hearing it bring hopes of spring to you? Do bird songs bring high spirits to you?

 

 

Laughing Kookaburra: A Spectacular Australian Bird

The laughing kookaburra watched the ground intentently for possible prey. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The laughing kookaburra watched the ground intentently for possible prey. (G. Thomas Bancroft)   click on picture to see bigger version.

When I was young, I loved going downstairs on Saturday mornings in mid-winter to watch Tarzan movies. Johnny Weissmuller’s call would reverberate through the house to my mother’s vexation. In my pajamas, I would curl up in a blanket on the floor in front of our black and white TV and become engrossed in the show. The exotic animals and the jungle sounds spell bounded me. Later as I became fascinated with birds, I heard that one of the background jungle sounds in Tarzan movies was the call of the laughing kookaburra. Their call is loud and often many birds in a family group cackle together to defend their communal territory. The call resonates through the landscape, and this may be why movie producers use it. They think that a sound like the kookaburra’s call must be from the jungles of Africa or South America. Kookaburra calls appear in a number of other films including “Count Dracula,” “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Cape Fear,” and “Objective Burma.” Kookaburras live wild in Australia and not in the places these films depict. A kookaburra also calls in the forests of the “Wizard of Oz.” Maybe they do live in Oz?

Listen to a Kookaburra call recorded by Christopher. Thanks to him and soundbible.com for making it available.

 

Before my trip to Australia, I saw a live laughing kookaburra only once in a zoo in Florida. It sat majestically on a branch about 10 feet above the ground as I walked through its aviary. I stood and watched it for half an hour until my 5-year old daughter insisted we continue. The bird never called or even moved.

As I planned my trip to Australia, one of my quests would be to see and hear laughing kookaburras in the wild. They are native to eastern Australia, and people have introduced them to Tasmania. Kookaburras are the largest member of the kingfisher family, weighing about a pound, 18 inches in length, and they possess a large 4-inch bill. They live in eucalypt forests, open woodlands, parks and suburban neighborhoods. They rarely eat fish but rather feed on snakes, small mammals, birds, lizards, and insects. They sit motionless on a perch watching the ground and surrounding area for prey. When they spot something, they fly down to grab it, returning to their perch where they may whack it repeatedly on a branch to kill it and tenderize it before eating it head first.

To start my Australian odyssey, I flew to Hobart in Tasmania to meet up with my daughter, her husband, and his family. We planned to tour Tasmania for a week. I had the first morning free to explore on my own, so I hopped the first city bus in the morning that went southwest of Hobart, and I was the only person on the bus. I was surprised to discover that the driver could give me change for my ticket. No buses in the places I have lived in the United States give change for fear that someone will rob the driver. The money sat in a tray between the driver and me. The driver kindly looked at my map and helped me determine where to exit his bus so I could walk into the Peter Murrell Reserve. He worried that I would have too long a walk to come back to find the return bus, but I shrugged and jumped off the bus. Black peppermint trees dominate this dry sclerophyll forest. The forest contained a thick understory of shrubs and grasses. A few grassy meadows broke up the contiguous forest. Birders regularly find laughing kookaburras in this reserve, and I was out to find one.

Kookaburras occur in family groups with young staying for several years to help their parents raise subsequent broods. As I walked through the eucalypts along Coffee Creek Trail, I heard my first kookaburra. The call started as a low chuckle, growing through a series of trills, chortles, and into a full belly laugh. I stopped dead in my tracks to take it all in. Over the next 20 minutes one or more birds called. I tried to creep over to see them but never did find them. With this call, kookaburras defend their territories, which they keep throughout the year. If a kookaburra from a nearby family responds, all the members of the original group may join in a loud and rambunctious series of laughs that can last several minutes. The next day we drove into the western wet part of Tasmania, and I did not hear or see another kookaburra for almost a week.

I spent two days birding at Dandenong Ranges National Park and You Yangs Regional Park near Melbourne on the southern mainland of Australia. I had good looks at laughing kookaburras in both places but in neither case would the birds allow me to move in close. I wanted to see the details of their plumage and admire their massive bill.

My chance to observe them up close came when I visited friends near Warwick in southeast Queensland. Penny had told me that kookaburras would serenade me at dawn from outside the bedroom window where I would stay. Penny’s bed and breakfast is spectacularly situated in a rural landscape that is perfect for birds. The first morning I walked along their driveway where I could look through the eucalyptus trees toward the river below. I spotted one sitting on a branch with its head cocked slightly to one side. I crept slowly along the driveway until I could watch it carefully. A dark brown line extended from his eye to the back of his head, and he had a dark spot on the back of its head. A light creamy stripe of feathers ran above the eye, and the bottom of his head and collar were light gray. I couldn’t believe how massive his bill was. It reminded me of a large pair of needle-nose pliers. The dark brown feathers on his back and wings had white-tips, and I could see the textures of the individual feathers.  After a few minutes, he turned around so I could see his creamy white underside and even see the nails on each toe gripping the branch. I don’t know if it was a male or female for they look very similar. Females are often slightly bigger. His gaze at the ground became riveted, and then he flew down to the ground to probe among the grass stems. I could not tell if he caught anything before he flew farther down the hill. I stood for a few minutes taking in this splendid bird before I headed back toward the house for breakfast with my friends so excited to tell them of my find.

On my last day at Penny’s place, I woke well before dawn, and as I lay in bed, I heard a loud chorus of laughing kookaburras tune up in her yard. They called back and forth amongst themselves for several minutes, and I drifted back to my childhood and those Tarzan movies. For a few minutes, I thought maybe I was again 9-years old. But no and I quickly rolled out of bed to go out to see these magnificent birds. Several birds hung out in the scattered eucalypts in their yard.

Here is a recording of the morning chorus that I made a few days later in the Atherton Tablelands of northern Queensland. The morning was just waking up and several species called in the first light of the day.

 

Seeing this unique bird and especially hearing their raucous calls will remain a cherished memory of my Australian adventure. Do you have a birdcall that you just love to hear and that brings back fond memories?

The laughing kookaburra turned around to show its creamy white chest and belly. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The laughing kookaburra turned around to show its creamy white chest and belly. (G. Thomas Bancroft)   click on picture to see bigger version.