BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Songs (Part One)
So, you want to improve your birding skills and don’t know where to start. Do you spend hundreds of dollars on bird identification books and journals? Would a new pair of binoculars make a difference, and how does one then decide between Bausch & Lomb, Leica, Swarovski, Zeiss and all the rest? And how about a new spotting scope while you’re at it — but how to afford one after buying all those books and binoculars?
I have a better idea. Do yourself a favor, save your money and invest some time instead on learning some bird songs and call notes. In my opinion, there is no more valuable aid to finding and identifying birds than learning their vocalizations. Of course, this skill is not something that works all the time for all birds, especially the reticent ones. It’s been a long time, for example, since the sound from a female duck, kettling Broad-winged Hawk, Iceland x Thayer’s gull hybrid, Snowy Owl, or Mute Swan helped me find or identify it.
Unfortunately, learning songs and calls is hardly an easy or quick process. Not only are songs and call notes difficult to identify in the first place, but they are even harder to remember after the “off” season of August–March when most Minnesota singers are either absent or silent. Come springtime, be prepared to start all over again trying to recognize songs you thought you knew so well last summer.
Whether you choose to listen to pre-recorded tapes, or conscientiously track down the source of any unfamiliar sound you hear, or bird with those who already know their songs and calls (I recommend the latter), now is the time of year to start listening. Of course, there is no reason or space to describe in these pages all the bird sounds the novice listener may encounter in Minnesota, and this article will be more for those who are already familiar with a variety of vocalizations.
What follows is a selection of songs and call notes which are worth a second look– or, rather, a second listen: sounds which might be unfamiliar to experienced birders, those which involve potential identification problems, and those most useful in the finding and identifying process. If you can master these, or at least be aware of the difficulties they involve, the songs of all the other birds might seem less daunting.
This article only includes non-passerines – i.e., birds on the checklist through the woodpeckers; additional Hindsight articles on passerine vocalizations are planned.
Western and Clark’s Grebes
Now that birders have become more aware of what Clark’s Grebes look like (see The Loon 61:99-108 or Birding 25:304-310) and that they can occur in Minnesota, it now seems certain this grebe will actually prove to be a Regular species in the state. Less certain, however, is how to identify them, since some grebes show intermediate characteristics, including their territorial calls.
Westerns normally give a two-syllabled “cree creek”, while the Clark’s call is typically a one-syllabled “cre-e-eek”. The problem is that some observers have reported hearing one-syllabled calls emanating from flocks of grebes which visually all appeared to be Westerns. It would be a helpful exercise, therefore, for birders to not only look at all apparent Western Grebes they find but to also listen to them. If any Clark’s-like calls are heard, start taking notes on the vocalizing bird and, better yet, try to obtain some tape recordings along with photographs.
Back in the good ol' olden days (the 1960s), looking at swans used to be carefree as well as fun: they were all Whistlings. Then in the dreaded 1970s, not only was the name changed to Tundra Swan, but we also started to encounter Mute Swans and had to wonder where they came from and how countable they were. In more recent years the same difficulties have arisen involving Trumpeter Swans, and, to make matters more complicated, the identification of Minnesota swans became more challenging. It’s not at all a simple matter to tell adult Tundras and Trumpeters apart, and you also have to consider the possibility of Mute Swan when trying to identify an immature.
Swan identification can be simplified enormously if the bird is calling. The Trumpeter’s call has been likened to, well, a trumpet, although to my ear it sounds fuller and lower-pitched – actually more like a trombone (perhaps another name change is in order?) or the honking of a Canada Goose. On the other hand, Tundra Swans sound higher-pitched, somewhat like Snow Geese, or really more like Sandhill Cranes because of the trilled, throaty quality of their calls.
One of the first duck calls I learned was the two- or three-syllabled whistling of the male American Wigeon, which, after all, is sometimes called a whistler by hunters. But it took a few more years to figure out how I could sometimes hear this same call among a flock of ducks without any wigeons among them. The answer was pretty simple: Mallards, and perhaps other species, also give this same wigeon-like whistle.
Probably a more common source of confusion involves another duck known as a whistler, this time because of the whistling sound of its wings in flight: the Common Goldeneye. Male goldeneyes during courtship in winter and spring have a loud buzzing call that many birders are unaware of. And this call, as mentioned in an earlier article in this identification series (see The Loon 67:100), is very similar to –and has been mistaken for – the buzzy “peent” calls of both the Common Nighthawk and American Woodcock.
Buteos and Blue Jays
Most hawks are encountered during migration, when they tend to be distant, silent specks. But within their breeding ranges in Minnesota the buteos are more vocal, and many birders have become familiar with the high-pitched whistle of the Broad-winged Hawk, the Red-shouldered’s two-syllabled call, and the downslurred scream of the Red-tailed. Use caution, however, before adding any of these hawks to the day’s checklist on the sole basis of hearing their calls. First, make sure there aren’t any Blue Jays around, since jays can give a perfect imitation of these three species’ calls. (And I would be interested in hearing from readers if they have heard Blue Jays imitate other buteos, such as the Swainson’s Hawk.)
As with other heard-more-often-then-seen birds like nightjars and owls, learning the calls of rails is highly useful, an almost essential skill. While only a Sora or Virginia can be expected in most Minnesota marshes and are easily distinguished from each other, there are potential identification difficulties involving the calls of the Virginia Rail.
First, birders anxious to find the highly sought Yellow Rail by hearing its nocturnal ticking call should be careful not to be misled by the “kiddick kiddick kiddick” call of the Virginia Rail. Similarly, be careful about assuming that “kiddick” you hear is coming from a Virginia Rail if you are unfamiliar with frog calls, since the Wood Frog sounds quite similar.
Even harder to find than a Yellow Rail in Minnesota would be a King Rail, and the sounds of this rail and the Virginia are easily confused. Be aware that both species give a descending grunting or oinking series; while the King Rail’s version of this should sound slower and lower-pitched than the Virginia’s, this would probably be evident only if both were calling simultaneously. And most birders are unaware that the Virginia Rail also has a seldom-heard “tic tic treerr” call, which might be mistaken for a similar King Rail call: a louder, lower-pitched and more rattling “kek kek kr-r-r-r”.
An earlier article in this identification series was on shorebirds ( 67:100–103), and it included some tips on using vocalizations to identify some similar species: i.e., American Golden-Plovers and Black-bellieds, Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Solitary and Spotted sandpipers, and the two dowitchers. Also note that earlier in this current article there was mention of how easily the calls of another shorebird, the American Woodcock, can be confused with the buzz of a goldeneye or mistaken for the nasal aerial call of a nighthawk. (And yet another shorebird – Wilson's Snipe – figures into the discussion of owl calls below.)
That earlier article on shorebirds did not include the so-called “peeps”, the most difficult shorebird group of all, which will be covered in a future article in this series. One way to tell these confusing birds apart is by their flight calls, with those of the Baird’s and Least Sandpipers similar to each other but unlike the calls of White-rumpeds and Westerns, and the Semipalmated’s call being something else again. But it might be best to hold off on all this until that future article.
While the rapid, low-pitched “coo coo coo” of the Black-billed Cuckoo is unlike any Yellow-billed call, many experienced listeners are unaware that Black-billeds also have another call. They (the cuckoo, that is, not the birders) often give a slower “kowp kowp kowp” series, which is also given by the Yellow-billed. Such a vocalization on its own, therefore, is not identifiable. The only sound that can be safely attributed to the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is when these “kowp” notes are preceded by a rapid series of “ka ka ka ka” introductory notes.
The calls of this group of birds were probably the first ones most birders realized would be the most useful to learn, but at the same time too many misconceptions of owl calls remain among many birders. Following are some comments which will hopefully sort out what you’re really hearing out there at night.
• Juvenile owls of all species, along with the adults attending them, can give a variety of atypical calls, especially in the spring and summer. These tend to be contact notes within a family group after the young have fledged or while the adults are bringing in prey for their young. Most, possibly all, of these sounds are not identifiable as to the species involved. But since these calls are often of a screeching or screaming nature, they are sometimes erroneously attributed to the Barn Owl.
Incidentally, adult Long-eared and Barred Owls, especially the former, also frequently give such atypical screech and screams while on territory. These calls can be quite unnerving and similarly assumed to be a Barn Owl’s – especially when one is out all alone on a dark night.
• As mentioned earlier, a calling Wood Frog might be mistaken for a Virginia Rail, and there is yet another amphibian’s vocalization worth being aware of. The American Toad gives a prolonged trill which is similar enough to the Eastern Screech-Owl’s call to potentially result in a misidentification.
Additionally, it is worth noting that the Eastern Screech-Owl’s trill is sometimes interrupted part way through, becoming uneven in tempo or in pitch. One such screech-owl call I heard in Minnesota years ago sounded enough like a Western Screech-Owl that it was worth tracking down to be sure of its identity.
• Birders eager to hear a Great Gray Owl have been misled by the low-pitched hoots of a distant Great Horned or Long-eared Owl. However, unlike the other two owls, the Great Gray’s deep hooting descends in pitch as it ends.
• Even more highly sought than the Great Gray is the Boreal Owl, and its primary territorial call is actually most easily confused with the sounds from a shorebird. The winnowing of a Wilson's Snipe is quite difficult to distinguish from the calls of a distant Boreal Owl, although a winnowing snipe would be in motion overhead while the owl would be stationary in a tree.
Even more similar to the Boreal Owl’s call is the territorial call of a Northern Hawk Owl, which has bred in Minnesota on occasion. I have twice heard this call in Manitoba, and it was longer, softer and more uniform in pitch than the Boreal Owl’s primary territorial call. However, the male Boreal does sound very much like a hawk owl when it has attracted a female to its nest cavity, at which time its call becomes prolonged, more subdued and does not rise it pitch.
• And, thanks to those field guides, too many birders have been misled into mistaking the Northern Saw-whet Owl’s primary call for the Boreal’s. For reasons unknown, too many references – the Robbins guide and both the Eastern and Western Peterson guides included – still insist on likening the Boreal Owl’s call to a high-pitched bell or dripping water. In reality, that description perfectly fits the saw-whet’s call.
Also note the Northern Saw-whet can occasionally give some quite atypical calls on territory. One saw-whet I heard near Duluth several springs ago gave a rising, two-syllabled whistle or hoot, somewhat similar to the Burrowing Owl’s call.
While the males of most bird species sing to establish breeding territory or attract a mate, woodpeckers drum instead. This drumming is typically done by both females and males, it can start as early as January, and it is unrelated to the pecking and probing woodpeckers do in search of food. Unfortunately, the drummings of most species (i.e., the Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed and Northern Flicker) lack any pattern and are usually indistinguishable from each other. Only the sapsucker’s distinctive, erratic cadence would be easily recognized by most birders.
The drummings of the other three woodpeckers which breed in Minnesota can also be recognized with practice. Both the Pileated’s and Black-backed’s drumming sound slower than the others, often with a slight drop in pitch and increase in speed at the end (and I admit I’m not sure about always telling these two apart). The Three-toed’s drumming is also distinctively slow, but it tends to be shorter in duration than the other two, and it is typically two-parted, with a few diagnostic softer taps added at the end.
I have also read there are some differences among the otherwise similar drummings of the other species. The Hairy’s and flicker’s drummings are said to be faster and longer, the Downy’s and Red-bellied’s slower and shorter, with the Red-headed sounding fast and short. Comments from readers on this would certainly be welcome.
Woodpeckers also use their vocal chords, of course, and there are woodpecker vocalizations worth commenting on:
• The best place for the beginning listener to start would be learning the difference between the Downy’s flatter, softer “pik” note and the Hairy’s sharper, louder “peek”.
• The primary call of the Black-backed Woodpecker is distinctive and worth learning since this species is relatively elusive and highly sought: listen for its creaking, metallic, somewhat squeaky “krick”. Also note, contrary to what is generally thought, the Three-toed’s corresponding call note is unlike the Black-backed’s – to my ear it simply sounds like a Downy. (Note as well that both Black-backeds and Three-toeds also have a raspy, rattling, growling call.)
• The prolonged call of the Northern Flicker is easily learned, but it is often difficult to tell from the similar series of notes given by the Pileated. Usually the Pileated’s series is erratic and uneven in tempo and easily recognized, but it can also be steadier and more flicker-like, although it then tends to be shorter, faster, and higher-pitched than the flicker’s.
• The typical Yellow-bellied Sapsucker call is a loud, distinctive “mew”, although this sound is sometimes mistakenly attributed to the Gray Catbird. Sapsuckers also have a “churr” or “queer” call note, much like the Red-bellied’s and Red-headed’s calls – and I’ll let you know when I figure out how to consistently separate these corresponding calls of these three species. Or, better yet, let me know.