Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Visual Birding Has Its Merits 
September 09, 2017
by Steve Grinley

     I enjoy watching birds – no surprise there. But I also enjoy hearing birds. The fact that I started birding in May, when the birds were in full song, likely encouraged me to be more aware of song and use it as an identification tool. Hearing a bird, and then seeing it to match it to the song, was a big help in learning bird song. 

     If you do this often enough over many years of birding, you can’t help but be more proficient in knowing what bird is singing without seeing it. This is helpful once the foliage takes over later in May and hides the birds all summer long. It also helps as you are driving along and hear bird song without the opportunity to stop to try to identify the bird. 

     This becomes especially useful if you are doing bird surveys, or in real life, when you are outside with non-birding friends and birds become part of the background sound track. Without being rude by stopping a conversation to look at a bird, you can be content to know what bird is “playing” in the background.

     Doug Chickering of Groveland has a different view on the need to visually see a bird versus the satisfaction of just hearing it:

     “One of the birding oddities that I practice is to treat birding almost exclusively as a visual experience. It’s not that my hearing is bad, it is probably better than the average gentleman of my years. Yet I will never be satisfied at just hearing a bird. I want to see it. Perhaps it’s because I think I have a heightened sense of color or perhaps the experience seems a little incomplete unless I see the bird I am hearing. 

     “When I actually make a list it is only of birds that I see. Of course this results in a list that is shorter than that of my contemporaries but I am not out for quantity I am out for quality. It is one of my many eccentricities. 

     “Lois and I had slowly driven down the island this morning (August 28) and I found myself pulling over to the side of the road at a familiar chip in the heavy brush on the dune side of the road just at the start of the S curves. A Chickadee. I hopped out of the car and walked across to where I still heard that little high-pitched call. Chickadees seemed to enjoy conversing as they forage. 

     “My experience is that Chickadees often respond well to pishing and I wanted to see the little rascal so that I could place him on the day list. I pished and sure enough he came over to see what was going on. Then I noticed some movement on a branch just above him; a yellowish bird. I got on it and was delighted to find a Prairie Warbler. 

     “I know my desire to see a bird can often lead to a waste of time and I am sure that it has had a tendency to retard my knowledge of bird songs. Still after thirty odd years at this I think my bird song knowledge is quite good. The Prairie Warbler didn’t make a sound, and if I hadn’t stopped to pish in the Chickadee I would have driven right past him. That wouldn’t have been a disaster, of course, but seeing a Prairie Warbler is always a treat. It also seemed to herald the beginning of the passerine fall migration.

     “It was quite a lively morning on the island. I had a Hummingbird and a Brown Thrasher at the Wardens, and at Hellcat I got on my first Long-billed Dowitcher of the year. It was a classic text-book example, still pretty much in alternate plumage. This bird can be a devilish hard species to separate from its Short-billed relative. It was bulky with a humped back and reddish down the breast and undertail and even the streaking on the neck was discernable. Also there was a convenient Short-billed Dowitcher right beside him for comparison.

     “While on the dike chatting with Dick Mack and Bob Murphy about the Dowitcher, I scanned the top of the North Pool marshes with my binoculars. The air above the phrags and cattails was alive with Tree Swallows as the staging was still underway. Suddenly I noticed a startling sight. There within the crowd of birds was a single all white Tree Swallow, swarming with the rest but not really one of the gang. As they dipped and swerved the albino was constantly attacked by the Tree Swallows around him. He never tried to escape and they never stopped tormenting him. 

     “I brought this to my companions attention and the three of us watched this amazing tragic show. As odd as it was, this was the second time in my life that I have watched an albino Tree Swallow being harassed and attacked by fellow Tree Swallows. I even related the incident in one of the Essays in my book. 

     “It immediately made me wonder. Was this the same albino Tree Swallow I saw five years ago? Was it a different one? What were the chances? What was more unlikely? Two different pure white Tree Swallows being attacked in August at Hellcat by fellow Tree swallows five years apart? Or the same Tree Swallow enduring what seemed to be five years of constant persecution? 

     “The wonders of nature never cease.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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