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Early Sounds of Spring

By early February, bird calls begin morphing into songs. In the “fee-bee” of black-capped chickadees, the “peter-peter” of tufted titmice, and the more complex, bright caroling of house finches, I hear the beginning sounds of spring.

At first the resident birds seem unaffected by the weather. The overwintering song sparrow sings “hip, hip hoorah, boys, spring is here!” in the teeth of a snowstorm. Northern cardinals “pretty, pretty” on the coldest days of mid-February. And the irrepressible titmice, chickadees, and house finches sing no matter what the weather, proof to me that it is the lengthening daylight, not the temperature, that encourages their songs.

But at least a small warming trend is needed to bring in the first eastern bluebirds singing “cheer, cheerful charmer,” the eastern phoebe’s low-pitched repetition of its name, and the wild “dee-dee-dee” of killdeer flying overhead. By the end of last February, the dawn chorus around our house included American tree sparrows, song sparrows, an eastern phoebe, bluebirds and cardinals.

With the advent of March, the sounds of spring intensify. Canada geese and tundra swans sweep over the mountain day and night, “honking” and “woo-hooing.” Down in the hollow the first winter wren’s song echoes ethereally, and I plan many walks in hopes of hearing it.

On the first of last March, though, I was doubly rewarded. Sitting on Dogwood Knoll, I heard the “cheerilee, cheerilee, cheerilee” song of a Carolina wren. After six years they were back on the mountain. I had last heard and seen them in the bitter January of 1992 when a pair of them had followed mouse tunnels into our basement to escape the minus five degree cold.

Since then winter wrens had set up housekeeping among the tree debris spanning our stream and had partially filled the Carolina wren void in my life. Even as I rejoiced in the return of the Carolina wrens, a winter wren’s song also emanated up to Dogwood Knoll. Now, how was I to choose between those two marvelous songsters–the one otherworldly, the other very much of this world.

Not all the birds are musical. The woodpeckers–pileated, hairy, and downy–usher in the season with drumbeats, the larger the woodpecker, the louder the drumming. One pileated likes a resonant tulip tree trunk a quarter mile from our house, but we hear him, loud and clear, whenever he hammers out his syncopated beat. Although red-bellied woodpeckers and northern flickers also drum to claim their territory, it is their calls–the “kwir, kwir” breeding call of red-bellieds and the “wick-a, wick-a, wick-a” of the flickers–that I listen for in early March.

At the feeders the wintering dark-eyed juncos begin trilling by the second week of March and mourning doves “coo-coo-coo” in what sounds like sad surrender to the season. In the woods wintering brown creepers also start to sing what I think of as an upside-down eastern meadowlark song. Every winter we seem to have more and more wintering brown creepers, but although the March woods ring with their lovely songs, I have not yet discovered any breeding on our mountain.

Years ago a pair of red-winged blackbirds persisted in nesting in First Field for several seasons. Since then, despite planting cattails in our small wetland to encourage their return, red-winged blackbirds have only been visitors, dropping in by the hundreds on an early March morning when the fog is thick. Dim black bodies swirl from tree to tree, the swishing sound of their wings magnified by the fog. Best of all, are their “o-ka-lay” songs, essence of early spring music to my ears.

Then there are the robins. On a thawing day they sometimes appear by the hundreds running over First Field in search of food and “tut-tutting” with what sounds like self-importance to my human ears. But it is their beautiful, thrush song that I wait to hear, each male reverberating with as much resonance as its close relative, the wood thrush. Once in a while we are privileged to have a robin in residence who sings songs with greater variation and complexity than usual. I watch such robins closely to make certain the songs are really coming from them and not from some hither-to unknown bird species.

Birds are not the only creatures I listen for in early spring. Sometime in March, depending on the weather, I hear the first ducklike quacking of wood frogs down in our tiny pond at the bottom of First Field. Their siren calls compel me to crawl through the dried weeds and ease myself up on the hillock that overlooks the pond.

After a few minutes the wood frogs spot me and dive out of sight, so I sit down in front of the pond without moving for at least half an hour until one by one silent, froggy heads pop up. They watch me for a long time before they begin calling and bumping into each other as they test to make sure there are no unattached females in the pond.

I sit there hour after hour, mesmerized by the calling, swimming, mating and egg-laying ritual of wood frogs in our six-foot-by-three-foot pond and I am always sad when the wood frog courtship season is over.

Ruffed grouse intensify their drumming, and wild turkeys begin gobbling in early March. Ring-billed gulls wheel over the mountain by the hundreds, their calls evoking dreams of a summer beach. The downward “keeer” scream of red-tailed hawks frequently pierces the sky.

But one late afternoon in early March, after a wind picked up, a pair of redtails emitted a new call as they circled above Sapsucker Ridge. To me it sounded like a tin horn, but the experts call it their “chwirk-call.” As I watched from the veranda, one hawk landed in what looked like the remnants of an old nest on the ridgetop, while the other flew overhead, its legs extended downward, as it circled, called and then landed in first one treetop, then another, and still another, as if it were pointing out possible nesting spots. It was performing the “talon-drop” display that redtails do to defend their territory or during courtship.

One call that I listen for most springs, but rarely hear, is the “peent” of American woodcocks. But last March we heard more American woodcocks than we had during the previous 26 years we have lived here. Only twice before had we heard and then watched the male’s spectacular “sky dance,” as Aldo Leopold called it, near dusk over First Field.

Spring officially arrived at 2:58 p.m. on March 20. But it was a disappointing day because it was raining hard and fog blotted out everything beyond our driveway. At 6:40 p.m., when my husband Bruce headed down to our mulch heap with the day’s garbage, he heard the “peenting” of an American woodcock near our barn. He ran back to tell me and our son David, and we rushed down to listen and watch in the light mist and dusky light.

The show continued for 20 minutes more over First Field beyond the barn. Sometimes the woodcock flew directly overhead, but we couldn’t see anything except an occasional flash of birds’ wings, both because it was almost dark and the clouds were very low. The number of “peents” varied from five to seven to 12 to 27 before we heard him chirping above us during his song flight and then finally the whistling of his wings as he plummeted to earth. The “peents” seemed to come from several directions, even overhead, yet they are supposed to emit them only on the ground. Researchers claim that the displaying male rotates on the ground, which causes a directional change in the intensity of the “peents.” That may explain what we heard or, possibly, that one woodcock hadn’t read the books.

Many eastern North American fields are used as singing grounds during the spring, but the functions of the peenting and chirping song flights have not been studied. Ornithologists assume that they are used to advertise the position of each bird to other woodcocks, but they often peent and fly when they are alone.

However, if another male appears or a female visits, the display is intensified. Up to six males have been counted at one singing ground and, as they migrate north, they move from singing ground to singing ground where they also mate with whatever females they find. Most continue displaying and mating for two months once they arrive on their breeding grounds which can be as far north as southern Canada.

They display twice a day, at dawn and dusk. At dusk they fly or walk to their singing ground from wherever they have spent their day and then, after their display, they fly to a separate place to spend the night or sometimes remain on the singing ground overnight. At dawn they fly back to their singing ground. Probably the length of their displays is triggered by light intensity since, on foggy nights, for instance, they begin earlier and end sooner.

We have always assumed that our First Field was merely a stopover point for an occasional migrating American woodcock, although we have the habitat they like–young forest and abandoned farmland mixed with forest–at the boggy bottom of First Field. But our hopes rose that maybe we were nurturing a breeding female three days later when again an American woodcock displayed in the lower First Field at dusk. We even had a marvelous view of his overhead flight because the evening was clear. The following evening still another display occurred.

On the twenty-eighth of March, as we sat on the veranda near dusk, an American woodcock flew past low to the ground, but it gave no display. That, it turned out, concluded our woodcock appearances and we found no woodcock nests. Those sky dances, though, were the highlight of last March’s spring concerts.

March ended, as usual, with two beautiful sparrow songs. First were the downward spiraling songs of returning field sparrows who breed in both the overgrown First and Far fields. They were followed by the mournful “poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” songs of migrating and wintering white-throated sparrows.

By the last day of the month our yard, the woods, and even the hollow were filling up with bird music. After a dawn chorus of American tree sparrows, mourning doves, field sparrows, robins, cardinals, song sparrows, juncos, phoebes, bluebirds and house finches, I listened to white-throated sparrows, cardinals, and the just-returned male eastern towhees along Greenbrier Trail. From the depths of Dogwood Knoll an especially enthusiastic towhee flew up, perched on a nearby shrub, and loudly proclaimed his name over and over more than 100 times without stopping.

Then a pair of hairy woodpeckers called to each other. As I watched, the male landed high in the tree where the female was foraging. Calling loudly, he mounted her for no more than a second and flew off, reminding me that that is what all the sounds of spring I was eagerly listening for are about.

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