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Spring is Song (and Surf)

April 4, 2011
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Spring arrived in North Carolina last month with all the presence of a wet pool towel.  Exhilarating at first, but followed near immediately with a damp, uncomfortable heaviness that has you wondering why you didn’t think to prepare yourself better.  Sure that spot by the kiddie pool was open, but that doesn’t mean you had to take it, and if the time spent beneath that oppressive shroud offers anything productive from its shiver inducing sogginess, it’s that everything starts seeming really nice indeed once you slip into drier clothes.

The calender turned over to April and spring was waiting, warming up the audience for the concert of the year which starts right on time with the first boisterous spring dawn chorus.  Sure it consists mostly of residents, the Cardinals and Carolina Wrens and Robins that favor us with their presence year round, but there’s just enough of that south of the border flair to remind birders of warm seasons past and send us running to birdsong recordings to help us dig into the file folders in our heads to seek out receipts that had been socked away in the back in lieu of those for gull tertials and finch flight calls.  This annual re-jiggering of the synapses gets more complicated every year as information piles up, and the switch is not quite effortless for me as a certain B-song-singing Louisiana Waterthrush I came across this weekend can attest.  It’s getting there, but I’m far from the top of my game in early April.

But many of the songs are familiar even after a long hiatus. The Northern Parula who by sheer stubbornness will never replace his beloved jacket with the rusty zipper.

A Wood Thrush, whose song is just a classier version of the Red-winged Blackbird.

A Yellow-throated Warbler, belligerent, drunk again and spilling his drink. Beer-beer-beer-beer-clean-up

The Hermit Thrush tuning his broken calliope, every tone of the pitch pipe followed by a chord he can never quite get right, and failing again and again.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet yanking the pull starter of a musical lawnmower.

The Louisiana Waterthrush starting out with such confidence and trailing into a buzzy whistle of nothingness, as if realizing he didn’t have much to say in the first place.

There’s more of course.  Pine Warblers unsure when to come in but totally selling it when they do.  Titmice calling for dear Peter-Peter-Peter and despondent when he fails to show up once again.  Lingering Siskins running their fingers up a comb.  All contributing to a cacophony that’s like so completely welcome after a long winter.  This is coming from someone in the south too, where winter is really more suggested than mandatory.  I can’t imagine the feeling of overwhelming relief folks farther north must feel.

As I walked the trails at Umstead State Park in Wake County Saturday morning I was thinking about all this.  My mind was firmly set towards spring and my eyes were focused on the horizon when I was abruptly yanked back into winter with the appearance of a big dark duck on the far side of what is charitably called Reedy Creek “Lake”.  I back-tracked, found a route to the shore (what little bushwhacking was necessary turned up a Common Yellowthroat) and was treated to this.

Surf Scoter, a rarity inland, and completely unexpected and appreciated.  It seems that Spring has surprises in store beyond the those of the odd-singing varieties.  Whatever you’ve got, I’ll take it.

120 down*, 96 to go.

*Includes White-eyed Vireo, Vesper Sparrow, Tree Swallow and Barn Swallow from April 3 at Mason Farm.

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5 Comments
  1. David permalink
    April 4, 2011 9:37 am

    Those are some fantastic descriptions of birdsongs. Very evocative.

  2. April 4, 2011 10:22 am

    Ouch! The Wood Thrush’s song “just a classier version of the Red Winged Blackbird”!!!
    NOT. You are talking about Miles Davis here my friend—only the most gorgeous mellifluous
    cascade of honey in our spring woods.

  3. Nate permalink*
    April 4, 2011 11:06 am

    @David- Thanks!

    @Jane- I thought that might get some comments! I’m always struck by the similarity in cadence and structure between the two. They’re opposite sides of a continuum line. Wood Thrush is pure honey, as you say, and Red-wings are dry bones.

  4. April 4, 2011 11:36 pm

    After another mandatory winter (we actually received a blanket of wet snow during the evening that disappeared before Monday morning), I cannot wait to hear the insect-like songs of the Grasshopper Sparrow and Blue-winged Warbler. Though on the northern edge of the breeding range, I would love to hear the song of a Louisiana Waterthrush. It’s been a long time since my one and only observation of this species in Ontario.

  5. April 5, 2011 11:03 am

    @Jane & Nate: I have mentioned it before, but it needs repetition – the song of the Red-wingend Blackbird is pure HONEY. Catharus thrush songs are nice, but normal nice. I prefer the Red-wing’s uniqueness. It is like comparing a pop song to jazz.

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