By Kate Crowley
For a bird lover, June is like a tempting buffet – or maybe I should say smorgasbord, considering where we live. And at this time of year, we are ravenous, with eyes and ears having been starved by the long and scarce winter rations. Now there are so many beautiful and melodic sights and sounds that I find it hard to choose which to share with you. So I will make a compromise and talk about one colorful species and a few of the songs we’re hearing.
Many of the birds who return this way each spring come from the tropics and not surprisingly they come arrayed in colorful plumage – far more extravagant than that which our resident birds wear. (The one exception being the American goldfinch). Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks are just a few of the obvious arrivals arrayed in flashy red and orange feathers. But there is one small bird that is equally impressive when you see it in the right light. That bird is the indigo bunting. Just slightly smaller than a goldfinch, this Neotropical migrant has the conical shaped bill of a finch, but it is more closely related to the grosbeaks and cardinals. When seen in the shade it appears almost black, but let even a small amount of light strike its body and its feathers seem almost fluorescent. It is hard to describe the color; the way the deep blue glows and shines, but I guess indigo will have to suffice.
Last week we saw a brown bird on one of the feeders that had us stumped. It wasn’t until Mike started paging through the field guide that he hit upon female indigo bunting. As bright and beautiful as the male is, the female is the opposite. The next day the male showed up and he has been visiting the seed feeders ever since and we are thrilled. Our hope is that the pair will find a good nesting location on our property and raise a family. They usually build their nests in dense shrubs or low trees. Unlike some species, they do well in habitat that has been disturbed by logging, highway or power line construction. Our land hasn’t been altered in that way, but we do have a lot of shrubby vegetation on the forest edges.
Seeing the indigo bunting by itself is a treat for the eye, but it was an even greater delight when it landed on the feeder right next to a male goldfinch in all his blazing glory. The two together were enough to make us catch our breath is awe.
Now for the songs: One of the benefits of years of watching and studying birds is the ability to recognize them by their voices. For some species this is the only way we will know they are here, because they are so well camouflaged or shy we never get a look at them. People often marvel when they hear us say, “that’s a chestnut-sided warbler” or “did you hear the peewee?” There is no trick to this ability; it is all about practice and repetition just as you would do learning any foreign language.
Now that the sun is rising ever earlier, so too are the birds. With windows open I am awakened by the combination of light and sound. Two different birds were singing similar songs. One was singing ‘fee-bee, fee-bee’, while the other was singing ‘phoebe ….. phoebeeee’. Do you know who I’m talking about? One is a bird that lives here year-round and starts singing its courtship song as early as January. The other arrives in April and builds its cup nest in our barn (above a light fixture) every year.
The first is the black-capped chickadee and the second is the eastern phoebe. The chickadee’s two part call is first high pitched and the second lower pitched, given over and over with a slightly melancholy sound. The phoebe’s call (how it came by its common name) is repeated at a faster pace, with the second phrase having a vibrato at the end. It is not often that you hear two different species of birds ‘saying’ almost the same thing. Of course, we are using mnemonics - putting words into the mouths of birds - to help us remember them by. There are others we could discuss, like the least flycatcher that says, ‘chebek, chebek’, but we’ll leave that for another time.