Greetings, everyone! Lisa Rainsong here. I’m a professional musician who is also a naturalist. When I’m not in the classroom teaching music theory or performing onstage as a professional singer, I’m probably out in the field recording the songs of birds, crickets, katydids, amphibians, and anything else that “sings.”
When Lang invited me to be a guest blogger at Miracle of Nature, I gave a lot of thought to what I might be able to offer that’s a little different from the local observations and explorations I write about in NE Ohio, (the location of my blog, “Listening in Nature”).
What I decided to do is write a series of stories about listening in a very specific location. I’ll be observing the birds, amphibians, and insects I see – but especially hear – in that location and share my field recordings of those individuals so you can hear them along with me. I find it endlessly fascinating to learn one spot well enough to really understand what I’m hearing there, which then leads to an ongoing relationship with that place in nature.
You may have found that sorting out bird songs from the overall sound texture can be pretty challenging sometimes. This is especially true in May, when everyone seems to be singing at once! So we’re going to limit this exploration to a relatively small area, and we’re going to learn what we hear a little at a time. I can break this down in a way that I think will be intriguing and encouraging.
Do you have a special place? A favorite park? A quiet trail? A pond? Your back yard?
I’ve chosen a pond on the Case Western Reserve University farm outside of Cleveland. I’ve studied the birds there in the past, and I’m inviting you to join me as I revisit this pond in 2014 to see who’s singing and nesting there, who’s new this year, who isn’t there now, and how everyone is interacting. Come walk and sit with me, then go back to your old favorite spot or a new spot you’d like to get to know. Do the same thing and see what you can learn – it will be engaging!
I would like to invite you to notice the birds and other wildlife you see – but especially hear – in your special place, including your back yard. You’re welcome to tell me what you hear in your special place, too – you can comment after any of my blog posts.
So let’s get to know the pond and take a listen:
It sounds like so many birds are singing at the same time! How are we ever going to sort out who all is singing, let alone what they’re saying and what they’re doing? We’ll do this one step at a time.
First, who are the birds that are most likely to be singing around a pond? Red-winged Blackbirds.Song Sparrows.Yellow Warblers. We can usually count on a Robin nest and a Cardinal nest somewhere in the vicinity. Let’s see if we can find them, and then try to notice if there are other species that are singing consistently enough that we can find and identify them as well.
Red-winged Blackbird: check. His “conk-a-REE” is certainly not subtle:
Song Sparrow: there’s always one in the hedge row across from the pond, and this year is no exception. Here’s what he’s singing right now, but he’ll have a number of other songs he can sing in addition:
Yellow Warbler: yes, there are two males singing in exactly the same locations that I hear them year after year. I almost never see them, though, as they are so well hidden in the shrubs around the pond. This is when bird song is especially helpful – birds you can hear but can’t seem to spot.
But wait, aren’t there two different songs here? Are both of them Yellow Warblers? Yes and yes. We’ve only just started our walk, and we’re already coming to one of my favorite teaching concepts: Theme and Variations.
People often learn the Yellow Warbler as “Sweet-sweet-sweet-little more sweet?” and this is indeed the most common song I hear from these birds. The one at the back of the pond is singing this song:
They have other options, though, and the bird closest to the picnic area’s gravel driveway is consistently singing other forms of the Yellow Warbler song:
So we know that both songs are Yellow Warblers, and we also know that the one by the gravel driveway sings the less common song. I’ve also heard him sing the more common song, and maybe we’ll find that the other Yellow Warbler sings additional songs.
American Robin? Of course. Always listen for the bouncy rhythm and especially the short, regular phrases. This is not a long, flowing song – it’s kind of choppy, but in a most delightful way. We may be able to learn the specifics of this particular Robin’s song if we listen to him over a period of time:
Northern Cardinal? He’s in the next tree over from the Robin. We’ll see if we can listen to him in greater detail once we’ve established who all is singing. Cardinals routinely change their songs in response to other males, and each Cardinal has a repertoire from which to choose. We’ll see if we can learn the repertoire of “our” Cardinal:
But there are some additional loud, insistent birds that have been singing in some of these recordings. Do you know who they are? That’s where I’ll continue next time – see you then!