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.

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