Once again I spent a fabulous morning leading a field trip to a local site while the rest of the Spring Field Ornithology class made an early (very early) morning trip afar, this time to Braddock Bay Bird Observatory near Rochester, NY. Dave Nutter, the other trip leader, brilliantly suggested we spend the morning at the Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve, 500 acres of lakes, forest, streams, meadows, and wetlands 20 minutes south of Ithaca. I've read about this hotspot dozens, maybe hundreds, of times on the local listserve, but it's just far enough of the way that I've never visited. After today's trip I know I'll be back.
I scored some dozen "first of the year" birds, happily pushing me into the throes of spring. I've still been hanging on to late-winter based on the birds present on our hill, like the White-throated Sparrows that are still slowly departing. But the songs of the Great Crested Flycatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush and other warblers, including Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, Blue-winged, Prairie, and Ovenbird were not only new for the year, but made the air that much warmer, the sun shine that much softer, the budding plants that much greener, and the blue in the sky that much deeper. They made it spring.
The high, or low, point, depending on how you look at it, was a quick burst of a loud, clear, unrecognizable song that we heard just as we were turning back (we needed to leave promptly at 11:00, which meant we'd have to haul back through the fields and not stop for anything new).
The song was familiar, sort of. It certainly didn't jump out like the Great-crested or the Ovenbird, I couldn't even pull it from the deep recesses of my mind, that piece that stores the not-so-distinct or easily-confused songs, like Chestnut-sided Warbler (which I have to think about to make sure it's not a Magnolia or Hooded Warbler). Usually with some conscious process-of-elimination tactics I can get there, but this one left me stumped. I waited for someone in the class to offer their thoughts but got nothing but expectant looks. Until someone finally broke the silence.
"Um, so, what was that?"
"Hell if I know" my inner voice (I hope it was my inner voice!) muttered. Out loud I mumbled something along the lines of, "Oh, that was interesting. That's not its normal song." Like I had already confidently identified it and I was going to use it as a teachable moment so that they would always identify such a sound. Inside I was squirming, "Please, sing again! And not that abbreviated piece, do whatever the classic version is supposed to be: whatever the Stokes recorded, whatever the Peterson Guide teaches . . . ."
Nothing but silence, not even a vireo to divert attention.
After several awkward moments a thought, not quite an epiphany, crept through. The voice, not the words of the song, but the quality, was Hooded Warbler-ish. But the habitat didn't look right, and it definitely wasn't the expected, "weeta weeta weeTEE-oh," but some shortened, mangled version. But the more I thought about it, the more I suspected it was a Hoodie, and I realized this was dangerous ground. By the time I got home I would have convinced myself it was a Hooded, I would list it, and it would be part of the permanent record.
So I did make it a teachable moment, but probably not the one the group expected or wanted. I reiterated a theme I bring up consistently: variation. Not all members of a species look like what Sibley drew or Kaufmann photoshopped, and that goes even more so for song. It seems very few birds sing what's expected. The mnemonics work to a point, and better for some species than others, but are often unreliable.
I don't know who first articulated this enlightening approach to song identification, but the best strategy is to learn the voice of the bird, not what it's saying. You know which friend is calling your name without looking, and if they are reciting a Shakespearean sonnet you'd still recognize their voice. Same approach: get to know the voice, ignore the words. (But if they do say the right words, like "Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada," that's certainly a good clue.)
Final message: it's OK to have observed a bird and leave it unidentified, and thus endeth the lesson.
But boy, my gut was trying to tell my head that it really was my first Hooded Warbler for the year . . . .
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