That Carolina Wren must have seen me looking for him. He keeps hollering, “Teakettle teakettle teakettle!” but when I go out to find him, he stops. I never get to hear them close up at my house, I don’t know why. I’ve seen winter wrens there. I get forest birds and lots of warblers. Most of them don’t mind you looking so much, but every time I try to see that Carolina Wren he stops singing and hides.
I was surprised the first time I went birding with a group, to see how much yakking goes on. Pile into someone’s car, drive a little ways, and then we stop and all get out, listening, tilting our heads, and looking around, binoculars as an appendage. “Hear that? A Black-and-white Warbler,” someone says. “Goldfinch over there,” says another. You’ve no idea how many goldfinches there are in this world, until you learn their voice. New England is lousy with them. Perchickoree! they shout when they’re flying. I think it means something like, Geronimo! or Look at me, I’m flying! because they don’t say it when they’re just sitting around or looking for a mate. They have a question they’re often asking, the voice goes up and there’s always a question mark after it. Kerwee? But I don’t know what it is they want to know.
Teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle! There’s that wren again. I swear, all I have to do is look out the window and he stops.
This week I heard two long lost voices. The first was Zee zee zee zoo zee. Had to be a Black-throated Green Warbler. Picked up my binoculars and coffee and went straight out like a magnet. It’s not like I could have stopped myself- I had homework due in three hours that wasn’t quite finished. And I have two days to finish a report but only one day in which to work- but I hadn’t seen that fellow since his long trip! I looked for him in the tree I think of as belonging to the Chestnut-sided Warbler, and thought I saw her, but then the bird said Zee zee zee zoo zee. Mr. Black-throated Green!
Warbler really is a misnomer. Not a one of them, as far as I can tell, actually sings in a way that can fairly be called a warble. You want someone to warble for you, ask a Purple finch.
I was so happy to see my girl, the Chestnut-sided Warbler. She’d made a nest last year in the pricker bushes under the big tree, and I never could find it, even after watching her go to it over and over to feed the kids. Of course, I didn’t try to find it until long after everyone moved out. Same thing happened with her partner yesterday morning. I was in my house getting ready for the day, when I heard a song I hadn’t heard since last summer. Pleased pleased pleased to MEETcha! That’s what they sound like. Listen and tell me they don’t. If you don’t translate them like that you’ll never be able to differentiate them. They’ll just sound like a bunch of birds chirping, whistling, singing or tweeting, and that’s all. I saw that lemon yellow cap, and the black on the face- that’s him. And he said it again just so I could be sure.
After briefly spotting the Black-throated Green- probably two, he had a pal up there but I didn’t definitely see her, I heard someone say, Trees, trees murmuring trees, and I thought Redstarts and Black-throated Greens say a similar thing, so I looked it up. With the Birding by Ear cd, which I don’t know how I managed without, you get a list of all the things they say, for example, everyone knows a Robin says, Cheer up, cheerily, cheer up, and a Crow says Caw. All those types of things. Turned out it was still the Black-throated Green, saying something a little different. Redstarts are for another day, coming soon to a woods near you, God willing. It’s a shame you’ve probably never even heard of this neighbor of ours, because they’re every bit as exciting as Orioles, who I thought he was the first time I saw him. Probably more exciting, because of the way they fan their tails out to stir up the bugs for their lunch- it’s like seeing a beautiful sea shell, high in the treetop.
You may wonder why I don’t abbreviate and call him Mr. Black-throat. That’s because I adore the Black-throated Blue warbler. He’s stunning, and you’ve never seen him unless you’ve put on a ton of bug spray and stood in the woods for fifty minutes without moving. First time I heard him in my neighborhood I was…sometimes “thrilled” is too small a word. He says, beer beer beer BEE. Kind of buzzy, and very understated. I’d been living there for seven years before I even heard that song in real life, and he and his kin have been singing it right there on that mountain for how long? Hundreds of years? Thousands? He’s a gorgeous shiny blue, white below, with black on his face exactly where it’s supposed to be. The shape of his little bird body is- perfect. I was birding with this club and this chick was talking about wood ducks, and she said, “The male is so striking, he looks like he was painted by God himself!” Well, yeah- he was. They all were.
I thought you had to be still for ten, twenty minutes first. That’s how it works at home- be a statue for fifteen minutes until the world starts back up. Everyone hides quietly when you first go out. That’s why you need a lot of bug spray, so you don’t twitch and swat; you can be still. Then after a time they either forget about you, or accept you. They probably just give up because they’re hungry and it’s their yard anyway.
That’s why I was so surprised at the birders. They get out of the cars and walk around looking, listening and pointing. They speak in normal voices, not even whispers. They move around. They’re very helpful- always teaching one another how to differentiate voice- that’s why it’s not called bird watching anymore. If you don’t use your ears you’re going to miss more than half the action. Very accepting of newcomers, always patiently saying the same old teaching things: the Chickadee has a whistle-like fee bee call, and the Phoebe’s is more sneeze-like and has a second part: fee bee, fee-b-LEE. The Eastern Wood-Pewee draws out his unhurried pee a wee.
Then we all pile back into the cars and drive to another spot, talking about birds.