Dawn Chorus on Mary Ann Creek

A marsh along Mary Ann Creek in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington.

A cattail marsh with a small pond in its middle extended upstream, and a swamp of willows and cattails ran downstream. I stood on a narrow causeway where Mary Ann Creek ran through a culvert under the dirt road listening to the morning chorus. It was diverse, energetic, and loud. Right then, a Wilson’s Snipe was dominating the cacophony with its persistent jick-jack. The snipe must have been sitting someplace and letting everyone know that he or she was there. Both sexes will give this call, and it is a component of pair formation and territorial defense. I tried to ignore the snipe and concentrated on identifying the other birds.

A male Red-winged Blackbird.

Mary Ann Creek runs through a gentle valley with mostly grasslands covering the slopes on both sides. This area of the Okanogan Highlands is just south of the Canadian border and often filled with birds not found west of the Cascades. Here, along the valley’s south side, a narrow strip of conifers and aspens grow on the lower slope providing a different upland habitat. 

Three Red-winged Blackbirds were perched high in willows right along the dirt track and periodically gave their musical song. They seemed to ignore my presence and concentrated on announcing theirs. A Eurasian Collared-Dove cooed in the distance, probably back in one of the Ponderosa Pines. The melodic tune of a Song Sparrow and the fitz-bu of a Willow Flycatcher filled out the initial ensemble.

 A few minutes later, the long-drawn-out whistle of a Western Wood-Pewee caught me by surprise, and I turned to stare into the small coppice of trees along the edge. Almost immediately, a California Quail called from in that direction. I raised my binoculars to scan all the trees and see what else might be there. Flickers and bluebirds had been in the patch when I’d been here before, and other things could have easily been there.

Wilson’s Snipe.

The sweet, sweet, sweet ti ti ti to soo of a Yellow Warbler and the complex trill of a House Wren brought my attention back to the willows. A brief chatter made me think of Northern Catbirds. I wished it to sing, but it didn’t. I often find them farther down this road, where the willows are thick and dense. An American Coot made a brief squawk and then went silent. No rails, though, made their presences known. A Common Yellowthroat rounded out my list of vocal feathered friends. Occasionally a male Yellow-headed Blackbird will be in the cattails, but none today. They are common in a more extensive marsh downstream from this site. 

It seemed like I heard twelve, maybe thirteen species in the ten minutes I stood: a fine chorus for the day. 

The habitat downstream is thick brush in the wetland and then upland forest and grasslands along the slope.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Newsletter.

The Flute-like Song of a Black-faced Solitaire

Black-faced Solitaires have a beautiful song, very flute-like in its tone. I made this recording at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

The high-pitched whistles, very flute-like, came from a dense patch of forest just off the Big Tree Loop. The notes had a resonating quality to them that held in one’s brain for long after they passed. Several notes followed relatively close together, then a long pause before a different tune was uttered. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge early that morning to hike the network of trails at Mount Totumas. I was particularly interested in recording the song of a Black-faced Solitaire, and we had found one. 

This small thrush is in the genus Myadestes. The genus has some remarkable songsters. In undergraduate school, I traveled numerous times with friends in Mexico, and there we heard the Brown-backed Solitaire sing. After graduating, I purchased a print of George Miksch Sutton’s painting of that species and hung it in my house. In the painting, the bird is singing from a branch surrounded by orchids in flower and other epiphytes. Their voice is ventriloqual and that makes it difficult to find them. Hearing the Black-faced singing in Panama made me suspect that they too can project their voice. Oh, to watch a Black-faced sing from a perch such as Sutton painted for its relative would be a thrill.

Ridgely and Gwynne translated the black-faced song as “teedleeleé … tleedleeé … lee-dah … lee-doo.” This bird, though, seemed to use more phrases than they listed and had a series of different tunes before repeating. The slowness and crisp notes reminded me of a fiddler who might be sitting by himself on a porch enjoying the sun and afternoon. Of course, we are not supposed to anthropomorphize, but I can’t imagine that this bird doesn’t enjoy singing.

Scientists have not studied the song of this species very much. Consequently, we don’t know much about its variation within or between individuals. I wondered if it was like our Hermit Thrush in the Pacific Northwest. Each male thrush has 9 to 12 different opening sequences and then elaborate flourishes that follow each. They mix up their songs, and adjacent males rarely have similar tunes. Perhaps, this Black-faced individual has developed his repertoire to deal with his neighbors and keep his territory safe from intruders.

His frequency range was broad, extending the full spectrum of a grand piano, and some notes went even higher than that. Like other thrushes, he uses both of his syrinxes to make his melodious song.

I could listen to him sing all day. 

The montaine forests of Central America are lush and cool. They are highly diverse with hundreds of tree species and provide habitat for numerous birds including the Black-faced Solataire.

The Complex Tune of a Yellow-breasted Chat

A Yellow-breasted Chat along Sinlahekin Creek.

Loud catcalls came from the willows along Sinlahekin Creek, followed by whistles and rattles. A short pause happened between individual notes, and then a new and different call came. The diversity of sounds that this bird produced was astonishing, and I began to creep along the edge to see if I could spot this Yellow-breasted Chat.

Sinlahekin Creek.

In Central Washington, chats live in riparian areas where the vegetation is thick and dense. Often, they are secretive, skulking through the thickets and challenging to see, but sometimes males will sit high and on exposed twigs when they sing. The Sinlahekin Valley runs north-south on the eastern side of the Cascades. All along the stream are copses of willows—perfect habitat for this songbird.

I saw my first chat when I was still in high school. Our neighbors in Western Pennsylvania had let brush grow up in one of their fields, and a pair had taken up residence. On my way back from a walk into the hollow, I found a male singing in a thicket and ran home to tell my mother about it. They occur across much of the eastern United States and the interior west. 

Back then, Ornithologists thought this bird was an overgrown warbler. However, recent genetic work and behavioral studies have suggested it might be more closely related to the blackbird family and has been given its own family, Icteriidae. Nevertheless, ornithologists find it an enigma, and its taxonomy remains controversial. Finding one is always a thrill because it reinforces in my mind that we have so much to learn about the natural world.

Sinlahekin Valley has wide areas of riparian habitat that is ideal for Yellow-breasted Chats.

Chuckles, rattles, gurgles, and pops came from a branch sticking right over the creek. This diversity made me remember that one study found that the repertoire of some males could average more than 60 different calls, and this guy seemed to be right on par. A sonogram of their call really illustrates this diversity. So there he was, sitting on a branch three feet below the top of a bush and just calling away.

His yellow breast glistened in the morning sun, and his throat puffed out with each note. I settled to watch this songster perform.

A Yellow-breasted Chat sings in the top of a bush.

The Song of the Ruddy-Capped Nightingale-Thrush

The ethereal song of a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

A melancholic liquid song floated through the understory. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge at Mt. Totumas early that morning to see if we could catch the dawn chorus. The night insects had not yet completely shut down while the birds had begun to wake up when we heard this tune. After a short pause, a clear whistle drifted through next. Reinaldo whispered Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush. This montane forest was thick second-growth and ideal habitat for this member of the genus Catharus

This genus has twelve living species. Two, the Swainson’s Thrush and Hermit Thrush, breed in Western Washington, where I currently live. Those, too, have beautiful songs. However, this nightingale-thrush has a rich set of phrases that carry far. Sometimes they will sing more than 100 of them before taking a break. This one was putting on a good performance; fluty trills, whistles, warbles, and slurs kept filling my ears with delight.

Two other Catharus species breed at Mount Totumas, and the Swainson’s Thrush migrates through on its way back north from its wintering grounds in the Andes. The Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush breeds at lower elevations and the Black-billed at higher. The Ruddy-capped fills this in-between range on these mountains. Reinaldo took me up into La Amistad International Park to find the Black-billed, and we hiked down to the flood plain of the Rio Colorado to see the Orange-billed.

The diverse phrases of the Ruddy-capped continued to float around us. It sounded like a woodwind quartet, right here. Songbirds create their song in the syrinx, which lies at the base of the trachea and top of the two bronchi. With an elaborate set of muscles, they can control the tension of the wall of each bronchus. As the air passes over this tissue, it oscillates, creating each note. Remarkably, a bird, like this thrush, can control the syrinx at the top of each bronchus separately, allowing them to make different notes in each. Perhaps, this individual is alternating sides or even using both simultaneously to harmonize with himself. 

I could listen to this melody all day.

The Montane Forest at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve.
The montane forest at Mount Totumas where Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes live. The elevation here is about 6500 feet. Lower down, the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush nests and higher up is where the Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush is found.

The Call and Courtship of Resplendent Quetzals

The two-note whistles came from the forest up the hill. The first note was slightly higher than the second, both were slurred, and they came in rapid succession. A Resplendent Quetzal was giving his territorial call on this April morning. A fainter reply could barely be discerned in the distance by a second male.

These altitudinal migrants had returned to the Westside of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the last few weeks. They spend October through March on the Caribbean side and return to the western side just as the rains begin in April. Here, they court, find a mate, and wait for the flush of fresh fruit that comes with the showers. I’d come to the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest in Western Panama in hopes of finding these magnificent trogons. 

Nest cavity for a Resplendent Quetzal
A nest site with the tail of a male Resplendent Quetzal sticking out the hole.

I imagined this quetzal sitting on a high branch, his long upper tail coverts flowing back and forth in the light breeze. His brilliant coloration, a golden-green iridescence, should make him stand out, but these birds blend into these forests quite well. Although I’d seen several individuals in my week here, I stood, studying every branch, hoping I might spot this one.

Jeffrey — the lodge owner — and I had come out before first light to listen to the forest wake up, and now we’re headed back. The forest was still full of sounds. Black-faced Solitaires, Flame-colored Tanagers, Slate-throated Redstarts all sang along with many things I still couldn’t identify. The screeches of a Three-wattled Bellbird seemed to overpower everything else. Finally, we gave up the search for the quetzal and continued down the trail.

The montane forest in Western Panama where the Resplendent Quetzal comes to breed in April and May each year.

We had gone a half-mile more when Jeffrey halted, whispering quetzal and pointing directly over our heads. Almost immediately, “keow kowee keow” came from above us as some feathers began to move in the leaves. “Courtship display,” murmured Jeffrey. Males do a courtship flight, often flying above the canopy or they may chase a female through the canopy. Two birds were above us, but the vegetation was thick; they appeared to stay in the trees. Active vocalization between them lasted over a minute as I craned my neck to look straight up.

When they stopped, “Wow” seemed to be the only thing I could say. Jeffrey nodded, and we continued back toward the lodge, absorbed by this spectacle. 

Resplendent Quetzal
Resplendent Quetzal looks back over its shoulder. The long feathers are specialized upper tail coverts that grow exceptionally long in males, and they use them in their courtship of females.

Listen to other sounds from the forests at Mount Totumas on Spotify.

“Who cooks for you?” in the night

The Barred Owl began to call around 3 AM and sang for 5 minutes.

Barred Owl calls are eerie yet enchanting and downright marvelous. These birds are common in the lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest, but often go unnoticed because of their nocturnal habits. Their call rings through the woods sounding like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Their song travels well through dense vegetation.

On June 17th, I stashed a sound recorder in the woods along Stossel Creek, just west of Carnation, Washington. Units from the stereo microphone were tied three feet off the ground and on opposite sides of a small vine maple. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I might capture. Perhaps, the evening chorus of birds or the dawn awakening, maybe frogs croaking in the wetlands that ran along the forest’s edge. I left the rig, climbing up the forested slope to my car and driving away.

During the middle of the next day, I came back to retrieve the equipment. To my delight, an owl called right near my setup a little after 3 in the morning. It sang for 5 minutes and then went silent. While listening to it the first time on my computer, I imagined the bird sitting on a western hemlock branch, maybe 20 feet off the ground while it called. The woods at this location were a mixture of hemlocks, Douglas firs, and red cedars. Along the edge were deciduous trees and bushes. A marsh began within a dozen feet of my recorder and extended for a hundred feet or more across the valley and up and down its bottom. Dense coniferous woods rose on a gentle slope away from my rig. Perfect habitat for Barred Owls.

On the second time listening, I realized that a young owl whined from up the hill. It was a ways off and the call is faint. Recent fledglings will constantly beg for food, and I wondered if the parent was calling the young to fly down near the creek where the hunting for frogs would be good.

Pacific cricket frogs and bullfrogs are abundant in the marsh system running along the valley bottom. Both these would be ideal food and by June, the parent owls were probably starting to teach their owlet to catch its own food. Perhaps, when the adult went silent, it had gotten the young to fly down near it and the two had started to hunt. The frogs were silent during this recording and on either side of the recording. Yet, earlier in the night, both cricket frogs and bullfrogs had been calling. I wondered if they knew the owl was on the prowl.

Although not there to hear this firsthand, I could imagine the scene. Magical!

More Sounds here: https://thomasbancroft.org/sounds-of-the-wild-country/

Zumwalt Prairie SoundScape: https://thomasbancroft.org/zumwalt-prairie-soundscape/

Or on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/tom-bancroft-2

A Magical Musical Bird: The Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

The whistle came from a thick grove of old growth western hemlocks and Douglas firs. It might have been a tenth of a second long and then was followed immediately by a 2 second upward spirally flourish. It seemed like a flute or maybe an oboe was up in the trees. I stopped dead in my tracks along the dirt road and pointed my parabolic microphone in that direction.

The dense forest where the Swainson’s Thrush Sang.

Three seconds later a much softer whistle opened the tune followed almost immediately by a louder longer one and then a beautiful spirally flourish. The flourish was also a set of over-slurred phrases, each close together and slightly higher than the previous, getting softer as they went. My eyes closed to listen to this Swainson’s Thrush, a one-ounce bird who only recently arrived from his wintering grounds in South America. They breed in the temperate rainforests of Western Washington, and this one was defending its territory and maybe still trying to find a mate.

I’d read that each male has 3 to 7 song types. They vary in their detail and successive songs will be different. I cupped one hand behind an ear to listen closely. The opening whistles seemed to vary in pitch, sometimes one note and sometimes two. The flourishes were so complex and fast that I couldn’t tell how they varied. Maybe the sonograms of my sound recording would help me understand his melody.

The first song of the Swainson’s Thrush on my recording.

The first tune in the sonogram opened with two notes and then the upward spiraling flourish. The second note was louder than the first (as shown by the brighter color on the sonogram) and then the first section of the flourish was loud before it became fainter and went really high in pitch. The opening over-slurred whistles seemed to peak around G6 on the note scale. The first second of the next part went from G6 to G7 to B7 in a series of up and down notes. Then the song became softer and went all the way up to B8 before trailing out for another second around F7. The highest pitches and faint parts I could not hear, but I’m sure the birds could.

The second song by this same Swainson’s Thrush.

The next tune was dramatically different from that first. It opened with a soft up-slurred note and then two over-slurred whistles that were slightly louder before moving into a quicker paced flourish that included a series of over-slurred, up-slurred, and down-slurred notes. The pitch of the entire tune never went as high as the first, only reaching about D8. The next several also appeared a little different from these first two and after six or seven tunes, the bird was clearly repeating itself. 

Above is a Five-Minute Recording of the Swainson’s Thrush singing. The Sonogram of the recording will play as a movie and allow you to see the changing notes. The scale runs from 0 Herts to 10,000 herts.

The songs of Swainson’s Thrushes make my tension float away. These magical musical birds provide a gift of music to our souls.

Swainson’s Thrush

A Breathtaking Baritone

Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation, Washington

Author Note: This trip was done in 2017. As of late April 2020, Washington is in a “Stay at Home” mode as we try to control the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease. In early May, the state will open some protected areas for recreation while we continue to practice social distancing. If the Stillwater Wildlife Area opens, I hope to make it out early one morning to search for the “pump-er-lunk” bird. An earlier version of this essay appeared in WOSNews 173 in 2-18. I thank Dan Steiffert for letting me use some of his amazing photographs. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danstreiffert/

The trees were just beginning to show a little shape as I inched my way along the dike at Stillwater Wildlife Area. It was 5:00 AM on a Sunday morning in early May, and sunrise would not come for another hour, even longer before the sun hit this area at the western base of the Cascades. My flashlight was off so as to not disturb any wildlife. The songs of American Robins filled the air. Their “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up” melody proclaimed spring had arrived, and they were ready for another day, even though it looked like night. 

American Bittern – Photo by Dan Streiffert

A different sound made me stop, a gulping like someone was swallowing large mouthfuls of air. It came from the marsh across the small pond to my south. Five gulps were quickly followed by an eerie call: “pump-er-lunk,” then another “pump-er-lunk” and finally, a “dunk-a-doo.” A male American Bittern was trying to woo a female. 

I’d come to record this exact sound, so I settled onto the ground to put my stereo microphone rig on a tripod and see if I could hold still for the next hour. I slid off the gravel-topped dike to station my mic with its back to the bank, partially blocking sounds from behind me. The water was ten feet below, and a few bushes and cottonwoods lined the pond’s edge. Open water extended fifty yards to a thick marsh. The bittern was probably sitting at the water’s edge, hoping a female would like his display. 

Sonogram of the morning chorus at Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation Washington. The American Bittern has a deeper call than most birds. They hide in the marsh where this deep call will travel farther through the thick vegetation.

A second male began gulping; he was roughly a hundred yards east of my seat. The closer one instantly responded with his answer. Last week, I was here with a group of birders. The sun had risen as we searched along this old railroad bed, now a hiking trail. One person discovered a male bittern, probably this same one, lurking in the reeds and focused her spotting scope on him. We watched the male contort its neck as it lunged forward to gulp in air, expanding its esophagus like a balloon, and then used that air to make this resonant “pump-er-lunk” sound. 

In five decades of birding, I had never heard their call until last week. They don’t breed in Florida where I lived for more than two decades and were not common breeders near my Maryland home either. The sound last week took me by surprise; I watched the male for a long time while the birding party walked farther down the dike. Every few minutes, the bittern would begin again to blow up his esophagus and bellow out this resonating sound. This behavior and sound were so astonishing that I felt the need to return to see if I could record this spectacular call.

Their courtship boomings have a ventriloquistic nature, and rural people have given them some exciting names; “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper.”  These are low-frequency sounds that will travel much farther through thick vegetation than the high pitch songs of most birds. Ornithologists think that these calls function both to attract females and tell rival males that this marsh was taken.

American Bittern (adult) Photo by Dan Streiffert

American Bitterns are members of the heron family. Their streaky brown and buff plumage allows them to disappear into the reeds, blending perfectly with the vertical shoots. They often freeze in a pose with their bills pointed skyward, neck stretched, so the streaks in their plumage will run parallel with the reeds. If they see people, they usually sulk back into the marsh.

But on that day, I was alone along this dike; no other person was out this early. I was hunched low; I had headset over my ears; my stereo mic pointed right toward the marsh where the bird just called. My eyes were closed so I could concentrate on absorbing the morning chorus of birds. It was still 45 minutes until sunrise. In addition to the robins, the Red-winged Blackbirds had started their “conk-la-ree” song, and I could imagine them drooping their wings while leaning forward and puffing out their bright red shoulder patches as they bellowed. They reminded me of my high school years when the football jocks would strut down the aisle, not moving aside for anyone, puffing out their shoulders when passing a pretty girl. The six-phrase melody of a Song Sparrow came from right above me. He was probably sitting at the end of a branch, looking across the marsh, and raising his head, puffing out his chest when he sang his beautiful song. Individual male song sparrows have about nine different melodies, and they mix them up in their morning repertoire. He hopes this diversity will impress a mate. 

Juvenile American Bittern (left) being fed by Adult (right) Photo by Dan Streiffert

These birds would be an excellent background to the bittern, creating a musical filler between this heron’s calls in my recording. He’s my quest today. To think a bird could be such a breathtaking baritone. Each time the sound came across the marsh, I was amazed by how these notes were made and wanted to show others this unique love song. Another bittern called to my left, and a third at the limit of my hearing on the right. A long pause happened between their trumpets and then once one started to gulp in air, the others followed. I tried not to move or say anything in spite of my excitement. My recorder picked up every nuance of the morning.