By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter
The birding calendar has turned to breeding season. Field crews, deployed to remote regions of the 49th State, are trudging tundra and mudflats searching for nest treasure chests.
I flew home to southern Massachusetts on May 31, within the bird world’s window of rest between migratory travels.
Stepping onto my childhood swamp-side yard, relishing nostalgic aromas, familiar songs seem new again. I compartmentalize my hearing, trying to pick out a cardinal’s mingled whistles among the bells and teasing wheezes of tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees and flying finches’ chips and piks. A big voice elevators decibels, chanting several syllables, conjuring a go-to grouping for voice guessing — Carolina wren, common yellowthroat, ovenbird? Staccato nasal notes — “nah, nuh” — precede two white-breasted nuthatches, rather than Seward’s common red-breasted nuthatch, landing on overhead feeders. A mourning dove “cooo coo coos” on a bowed limb, flaunts its lime-mauve neck glitter, and leaps, snapping wings clapping.
Birding’s courting/singing/listening scene, which precedes the quiet nesting-hatching season, and follows the shorebirding season on the Kenai Peninsula, for me, can still be eloquently experienced even as many adults settle into long hours logged sitting on nests. Theories as to why noncourting birds are still belting — territorial, communication or for the recreation, joy or art of singing. It’s a special time to identify birds because every species found on a yard or town list can also be added to a list of that place’s likely breeders. While the individual pine siskin you might have heard ripping a long strip “zreeeee” may not be a nesting individual, its proven sustained presence in an area this time of year likely confirms its species as a local breeder.
The following musical tour will trade off paragraphs exhibiting birds observed in Massachusetts from May 31 to June 14 and Seward from June 1 to June 23.
In a pondside shrubby prairie bordered by white pine, stippled with cedar, a prairie warbler pitches its rising eight-syllable “zee zee zee zee zee zee zee zee,” as though it’s moving farther away with each note, gifting a hint to its location atop a beech tree, as if insisting we scope its black mask and stripes laid over rich, color-wheel yellow, which we do.
Hiking to Tonsina Beach, calls I became accustomed to hearing in any Seward woodland at the end of May — the orange-crowned warbler’s ringing trill and the Townsend’s warbler’s “zoo-zoo-zoo-zee,” which seems to be building to a complex verse before it short-circuits — fling from willow treetops continuously. I hadn’t seen a Townsend’s yet this year, so I pay (in neck pain) and am rewarded with a long look at the black-throated, white-undersided Dendroica as well as a close glimpse at my first-of-season Wilson’s warbler, a black-capped yellow darting bauble that reminds me of the male American goldfinches I watched undulate between maple treetops a week ago. After looking at the Wilson’s, albeit for less than a second, upon listening, I file its chattery nine-syllable, two-second racket, “jwee-jwee-jwee-jwee-jwee-jwee-jwee-jweet-jweet,” so I’ll know it when I hear it.
The field sparrow is my favorite sparrow to see, due its hunkered secretiveness and elegant, red-orange wash. The fact that it’s also my favorite sparrow to hear is linked to learning of its presence (the chance to see it), but the vocalization is sensational itself. Rapid escalating calls, like a sandpaper paddle dribbling a pingpong ball on a table faster and faster, “dew-dew-dew-dew-dew-dee-dee-dee,” piped up over the prairie plenty, but my only look, despite my best efforts, was short and shaded — the orange breast not receiving the necessary sunlight to spangle.
The pond by the airport has quieted. The clatter of colonized arctic terns has all but ceased, as those mega-flying small planes are sitting on bitty straw cups on caked mud. Amidst sounds of Super Cubs soaring overhead and the adjacent port’s clank, bangs and gunned engines, the savannah sparrow sings a buzzy ditty, a translation of which provides a pertinent advisory for these long sun-filled days — “take, take it eezz zzzeee.”
I put my ear to a birdhouse on a 6-foot post. Chicks cheep as the adult tree swallow bats its wings, rattling the box before launching out within inches of my eye.
Strolling Seward’s town alleys I raise my eyes to liquid chirpers with sickle-shaped wings bagging bugs, to scope whether the metallic blue-purple-green backed swallows have a white stripe separating their rump and tail (violet-green swallow). When I don’t see that stripe, every 10th bird or so, I rejoice in the reflection of observing the same species (tree swallow) breeding some 3,500 miles away.
Tubby croaky calls, “queep creep,” led me to my favorite find of my trip home — a great crested flycatcher. Connecting the call to this thick-billed, yellow-bellied bird, tall as a cardinal with rich rufous coloring like red clay on the tail and underwings, enabled me to recognize the call a couple miles away from the lake I found it near, in the swamp behind my parents house. I’d never dreamed this flower of a bird, which I’d mistaken on the quick for hallowed cuckoos in Florida, would turn up on my original yard list.
In the evenings and mornings the best voice of the trip, the wood thrush’s multinoted sonata, which conjured a flautist trapeze artist swinging on treetop vines, would tremble through said swamp. I never saw the bird, but I hardly minded. Baltimore Oriole — lithe liquid whistles with a neon orange breast — was my second-favorite bird to hear and see, despite the glimpses and sound snippets being spare. Cedar waxwing, cousin to the bohemian I saw once in Seward this winter, took third in both categories.
While the varied thrush’s stretched rings, “brrrrrinnnnng,” have disintegrated to a couple individuals detected a day, the hermit thrush is by no means in hiding. Syrupy swirled twirling enchantments have greeted me at every trailhead and alpine turnaround. Hunting leaf scratches and kicked twigs in hedges has earned some arresting looks at these flaunting flautists — ink-spotted breast, big eye, rufous tail, catbird/robin-colored coat, pink legs. A charming appearance that hardly competes with their pinnacle song.
Evening, gazing at mist-ribboned, snow-chute-ribbed mountains (Marathon and Bear), I tune into hermit thrushes pitching bewitching symphonies from forested mountain feet, contented that such majestic landscape has an apt soundtrack.
Sean Ulman wrote a column for the Redoubt Reporter about birding and field life while working as technician on the Chickaloon Flats for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He’s rounding the bend on a long novel about Seward and art.