Thursday, June 16, 2011

Red-eyed Vireo and the Unexpected

Sorry for the pause, everyone! I started as a field research assistant in May on a common yellowthroat (cute little warblers) project in Saratoga Springs, NY and am still helping out on that; what a strange experience it has been. I will talk about that in a near-future post.

What I want to talk about today is something I actually witnessed in a common yellowthroat during the project - birds making sounds you just do not expect. Now, my strength in birding lies in recognizing songs and calls. Birds' songs and calls just absolutely fascinate me, and I love learning all of them; even more fun is knowing who is out there in the morning just by listening to them 'talk' to each other. But being still fairly new to the game, I've focused on learning the typical song and then maybe one call, what you would find with most modern birdsong software or reading the 'voice' section in a field guide. So it's been a bit surprising to hear other calls and songs going on out there that might be typical but all the guides and recordings glossed over (like the typical male rattle of a breeding yellowthroat) or maybe even a song or call that the species rarely ever makes.

The past two mornings I've been out trying to watch this extra secretive female yellowthroat and seeing where she's building a new nest (her old one had a predation; mmmm yummy eggs). She has absolutely tested and broken my patience level. At the same time, she's in a great habitat spot for birds in general - it's wet, there's also a field full of tall grass, there's a hidden trail nearby in the woods, and it's seems there might be a field nearby as well. This spot has had yellow-throated vireos, red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, an abundance of woodpeckers (saw a pair of pileateds today loudly exploring the trees), solitary sandpipers moved through in May just nearby, and a kingfisher has been going back and forth recently. I also had the surprise of hearing a black-billed cuckoo's song ringing through the woods there about a week ago!

Yesterday morning I began hearing this quiet yet persistent call that never seemed to stop and went on for over an hour. It was pleasant to the ear, but it was strange that in all my birding in similar habitats I had simply never heard this before. I've never heard it in recordings, either. It could best be described as sounding like "TSITSI doom," with the TSI notes being distinctly separate but repeated very quickly as half-notes. The "TSI" had a chiming, high-pitched quality, much like you would find in a chickadee or kinglet. The "doom" was interesting - it wasn't really musical, but instead sounded like a mix between a kiss and a soft knock on hollow wood. It was far enough away yesterday that I only heard the phrase and it sounded as if there was a pause between it, but I found out today there wasn't a pause...this bird would 'say' the phrase and then sing the "doom" note at regular intervals with pauses between them, much like this: "TSITSI dooom...dooom...doom...TSITSI dooom..." and so on. It would also sometimes throw in an extra "TSI" before the phrase.

After two hours of trying to find this female yellowthroat she had disappeared for a good long while...I'm convinced yellowthroats have perfected teleportation technology and use it frequently, suddenly re-materializing far away from where you last saw them. While she was gone, curiosity got the better of me, and I lurked to the woods to follow this incessant call. I stood under the only opening in the trees I could find and hoped for the best and pished away. Surprisingly, the bird plopped onto the branch just above my head and called again! I looked up, and saw the white breast and belly, and pale yellow vent and the rather large size, and then it peered over the branch, showing off it's red eye, black eye-stripe, white supercilium, and black bordering the supercilium. I was rather surprised to see a red-eyed vireo peering down at me, though the persistence of this call led me onto a vireo yesterday as a wild guess.

I don't know what to make of it still. I've googled and googled but everything only references the robin-like song and it's "MEEeeer" whining descending call. I have not sat with the Macaulay library yet, but things don't seem promising with the lack of literature from the most knowledgeable birders that have existed.


Woodswalker said...

Well, birds are like that, aren't they? Full of surprises. Thanks for this very interesting account of how you hunted down your bird.

Lindsey said...

Their surprises might be why I love them so much! I'm glad you liked the account of my red-eyed vireo adventure. :)