It is April 23, 2010, at Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky.
I rise at 4:30 am, roll out of my tent, and drive to the Nature Station, arriving at first light. I’ve come here to get a really clean recording of the dawn song of a male Chipping Sparrow, perhaps the same male that was singing alongside the bluebird that I featured in my Bluebird Dawn blog entry several days ago.
As if on cue, a number of males begin singing at 5:30 am and it isn’t long before I chase one down and snag a very nice recording:
Dawn Song of a Chipping Sparrow. Recorded by Lang Elliott at Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky, April 23, 2010, at 5:30 am.
While most birders are familiar with the normal song of the male Chipping Sparrow—a mechanical trill lasting about four seconds with five or ten seconds of silence between each song—the dawn song is composed of brief trills of variable length, given one after the other with only short pauses between.
Although it’s generally too dark to see them, dawn-singing males usually sing from the ground, or else from slightly elevated perches such as stones, fenceposts, or snags. The males also move around a lot—after a minute or so of singing, a male is likely to fly to a new location (this poses a challenge for a recordist and means that you gotta get on him really fast).
So what is the point of this dawn singing? Biologists aren’t entirely sure, although it probably signifies heightened aggression in the male, and it certainly must convey to neighboring males that the singer has survived the night and is ready to defend his territory from intruders. In fact, neighboring males sometimes seem to duel one another with their dawn songs, separated by only ten or fifteen feet at the edges of their territories.
The significance of the Chipping Sparrow dawn song to me, however, is quite another matter, and entirely personal. In order to hear it, I must be awake and outdoors in the twilight of dawn, a superbly magical time for anyone who (like me) enjoys the songs of birds. And even though I cannot see the male as he sounds off, my heart invariably responds to his trills. In a sense, I find myself “counter-singing” with him, my inner trills, or purrs, alternating with his outer trills (although to an outside observer I would seem to only be smiling, making no sound at all).
Yes, that pretty much gets to the heart of the matter—I love to sing along with him in the dim twilight, two excited songsters linked together in time and place, casting their trills into the foggy dawn.