Published July 16, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird by ear to identify the unseen.”
By Barb Gorges
Here on the western edge of the Great Plains, our trees don’t grow so thick that you can’t walk all the way around one to see the bird that’s singing. But it is still useful to be able to identify birds by sound.
I’m a visually-oriented person, so over time I’ve learned to identify our local birds well enough to often figure out who they are as they flash by. I can only identify bird voices of the most common or unique sounding species.
At the big box stores in town, in the garden departments, there is almost always an incessant cheeping overhead from invading house sparrows.
If you get up at oh-dark-thirty on a spring or summer morning in town, you are likely to hear the cheerful “cheerio” of a robin.
Putting up a bird feeder may bring in house finches, with their different chatter. I especially like hearing the goldfinches around the thistle feeder which sound as if they are small children calling questions to each other.
Birding by ear becomes a more important skill in the mountains where the forest is thicker. The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s mid-June field trip was to the Vedauwoo Recreation Area on the Medicine Bow National Forest. We planned to hike the Turtle Rock trail. Since most of Wyoming’s birds are found near water (birdwatchers are most likely found there too), we focused on the beaver ponds.
Some birds, like the flocks of tree swallows flitting across the water, are never hidden away.
But one warbling bird was. It didn’t sound quite like a robin. I went through a mental list of birds that like riparian, or streamside, habitats and casually remarked, “Maybe it’s a warbling vireo.”
Then I realized I could check the free Merlin app on my phone and play a recording of a warbling vireo. Amazingly, it matched.
Yellow warblers are almost always somewhere around in the brush around water at upper elevations too and we could hear one. It has a very loud, unique call. Being bright yellow, it isn’t hard to spot singing in the willows.
There are species of birds that resemble each other so closely—the empidonax flycatchers—that it is necessary to hear them sing to tell them apart.
On the other hand, there are species that sound so much like each other, it causes the problem people used to have telling me and my mom apart on the phone.
For example, robin and black-headed grosbeak songs have a clear, babbling quality, but if you listen a lot while the grosbeaks are here during migration, you can tell who is the real robin.
On the trail, chapter member Don Edington picked out a bird at the tip top of an evergreen, singing away. It was yellow, with black and white wings, like an over-sized goldfinch. Its head had the lightest wash of orangey-red. It was another robin voice impersonator, the western tanager.
Visually, the sparrows are mostly a large brown cloud in my mind. The same can be said for distinguishing, much less remembering, many bird songs. I like birds with easy to remember songs, like the ruby-crowned kinglet, another bird to expect in the forest. It is so tiny your chances are slim of seeing it on its favorite perches in large spruce trees.
After being inundated by Swainson’s thrushes this spring—but all completely mute while they inspected our backyard, it was a pleasure to catch the trill of one on the trail. But then I checked it against a recording on Merlin and realized we had the thrush that doesn’t trill upwards, but the other, trilling downwards, the hermit thrush.
It does help to study the field guides in advance of seeing a bird species for the first time—just knowing which ones to expect in a certain habitat is helpful. Studying bird songs before venturing into the woods again would be as useful.
I need to crack open that new book by Nathan Pieplow, “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America,” and the corresponding recordings at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.
Except, we’ll only find the species we share with eastern North America. We won’t find our strictly western bird species until he finishes the western edition. But I could work on his technique for distinguishing songs—before I spend too much more time in the woods.
Note: In addition to Merlin and Peterson, find more bird sound recordings at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, or try https://macaulaylibrary.org. For the latter, try filtering by location to get birds using Wyoming dialects.