A Month for Songs

The air is like a butterfly
With frail blue wings.
The happy earth looks at the sky
And sings.

~Joyce Kilmer, Spring

Sipping my coffee with the cool air coming in the window before sunrise this morning, I can hear the first songs of the new day – a northern cardinal, a late spring peeper, and my favorite, the melodious call of a wood thrush. Last evening, before the storm, others were singing – the yellow-throated warbler that may be building a nest in the yard, Carolina chickadees, a summer tanager. Over the past few years, I have unfortunately lost some ability to hear high frequency sounds, so I am missing the calls of many other spring migrants, unless they are very close. Melissa tells me there are many black-throated blues out back, a northern parula, and a pair of hooded warblers down the hill. But, I still hear plenty in these woods, and elsewhere as I travel. It is the season of song, it is spring. The urge to sing is strong. During a slight break in the storm last evening, a wood thrush commenced calling, even though it continued to rain and blow. One of the joys of spring bird-watching is to hear these songs, and to see the songsters in action. Last weekend, on a trip to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, we were treated to a couple of energetic vocal displays, the kind that stick with you, and imprint the melodies in your head.

brown thrasher singing 1

Brown thrasher singing on top of a sweet gum (click photos to enlarge)

Early in the day, there was a lot of stopping and listening for warblers (at least by the others in the car), and prairie warblers seemed to be everywhere in the front half of the refuge that is dominated by thick pocosin vegetation. Later that afternoon, we heard the loud call of a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), a member of the mimic thrush family that includes mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers. Normally a secretive bird, foraging in thick vegetation, male brown thrashers change their habits during the breeding season and let forth with a series of loud notes from atop a high, conspicuous perch.


brown thrasher singing 2

Every time we drove by his corner, the thrasher was singing

We drove by a clump of trees at an intersection of refuge roads a few times before stopping to find the singer. There, atop the tallest tree limb, was a brown thrasher belting out his melodious song. Distinguishing the varied songs of a gray catbird, a northern mockingbird, and a brown thrasher can be tricky (all three species occur on the refuge). But, the thrasher seems to sing louder than the others, and usually repeats a phrase in its song twice, whereas the mockingbird usually repeats three times, and the catbird only once. Brown thrashers are known to have a repertoire of over 1,000 songs, with some researchers saying it exceeds 3,000 song phrases, giving them the largest playlist of any North American bird. This guy was certainly proud of his singing, and probably continued long after we finally moved on.

red-winged blackbird  in marsh

Red-winged blackbirds were vying for attention in the marsh impoundment

Late in the day, we passed by the large marsh making up one of the refuge’s moist soil units. Managers seasonally control the water level in this impoundment to maximize the production of food and access for wintering waterfowl. This time of year, the water is shallow, with abundant marsh and wetland vegetation, making it an ideal place for many species of birds. We saw American bitterns, lots of great blue herons, and heard several king rails. But the birds of the hour were the red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). Males were everywhere in the marsh, flying about, chasing other males, and establishing or defending territories.

red-winged blackbird singing

They would land on a tall reed, and burst into…song?

While we watched, several males were displaying their classic behavior – alight on a prominent perch (usually a tall reed); lean forward, puff up, spread your tail feathers and arch your wings, and let loose with a loud conk-la-ree! The most prominent visual aspect of this display is showing the bright red shoulder patch on each wing, their so-called epaulettes.

red-winged blackbird singing 1

Older males tend to have brighter red patches

red-winged blackbird singing with membrane showing

I noticed they usually lower the nictitating membrane on the eye during part of the call

red-winged blackbird singing 2

It may not be that musical, but it is one heck of a display

I wrote about the displays of red-winged blackbirds in an earlier post. Studies have shown that displaying epaulettes can be used to both defend a territory from other males, and to attract a female. In a series of experiments, two researchers explained some of the intricate aspects of this behavior in what they termed the “coverable badge hypothesis“. In one test, they temporarily dyed the epaulettes of some males to a black color and found this reduced the social status of these birds. In another study, by observing males that already had established a territory, and then watching newcomers into that territory, they noticed that the intruders usually conceal their epaulettes (badges) and leave without a fight when the owners display theirs. This is believed to help reduce fights between birds that can result in injury.

It certainly is a display I enjoy watching, and a bird I find fascinating during the nesting season, and in winter, when tens of thousands may flock together on the refuge. I suppose it is no surprise then that their song is the ringtone on my phone. Now, if only I could make it flash red when you call…





A Sense of Place

Being aware of the splendor of the seasons, of the natural world, makes us understand man’s critical need for wild places. Living with familiar things and moving in the seasons can fulfill that profound need common to us all: a sense of place.

~Jo Northrop

It was time. Time for another trip to that place I find so special – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It has been over two months since my last visit and I was getting antsy, so this past weekend’s nice weather prompted me to get in the car and go. Of course, I was hoping for bears or bobcats, but would take whatever nature would give me, as spring was starting to explode across the state.

Red-winged Blackbird male singing

Red-winged Blackbird male singing (click photos to enlarge)

One of the first sounds I heard as I drove in was the distinctive, konk-la-ree call of the Red-winged Blackbird. Back in February, there had been tens of thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds foraging in the fields. Now, only a few males are singing from prominent perches, defending a territory, attracting a mate, luring a naturalist with a camera a bit closer.


Red-winged Blackbird male

Red-winged Blackbird male

Males prominently display their red shoulder patches during the breeding season and respond to any nearby male that sings. I watched two going at it, calling back and forth, for several minutes. This one, perhaps a younger male (due to the brownish edges to its feathers) was always on a lower perch relative to the other, all black-feathered, male. These close-up views always make me appreciate the beauty of these birds and the sharpness of their bill.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

I was hoping to see some early spring arrivals and did manage a few such species in my day and a half – my first Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parula Warblers and Purple Martins of the season. Then, while driving slowly down one of the refuge roads, I heard the unmistakable call of a White-eyed Vireo, and stopped to search. In a few seconds, the pale-eyed gaze of this beautiful thicket-loving bird greeted me. The call is described in most guides as CHICK-a-per-weeoo-CHICK, but I prefer QUICK, take me to the railroad, QUICK. The distinctive white iris’ are found in the adult birds – immatures have dark eyes.

Green Heron

Green Heron

I also got quick glimpses of several Green Herons in roadside canals, but one bird went “out on a limb” for me as I drove past. I stopped and watched it raise its crest and stare at me with those intense heron eyes, before it flew off into the dense shrubs below.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

Another species that I have found here mainly in early spring is the Horned Lark. This is a bird of open habitats, and I usually spot them in barren fields before the crops have been planted. Their dorsal coloration looks like the bare dirt habitat they prefer, so I usually notice them while I am driving slowly and see what looks like a dirt clod moving. But a closer look reveals their subtle beauty and the unusual “horns” (tufts of feathers) of the adults. These birds do nest in NC (they are ground nesters), so perhaps this one already has a nest somewhere in the acres of open fields on and near the refuge.

American Coot 1

American Coot

There were also some leftover “winter” birds, including several small flocks of American Coot, a lone Ruddy Duck, and a few scattered Blue-winged Teal. Although there are scattered records of all of these nesting in NC, I believe it is a fairly rare event, and I anticipate they will all be gone in a few weeks.

Bullfrog head

Bullfrog male

I spent some time surveying one of the marshy areas looking for some American Bittern, as it was about this time last year that I heard them calling in an impoundment. Though one finally flushed out of the marsh while I was watching some Pied-billed Grebes, there was none of the unusual bittern calling to be heard. But there was the deep bass sounds of Bullfrogs coming from the marsh, especially on the first afternoon. The second day was much windier and this may have inhibited their calling. At first, I was trying to locate the callers along the edges of the marsh grasses. But, then I started spotting Bullfrog heads poking up out of the open water, mixed in with patches of emergent vegetation.

Bullfrog head 2

Bullfrog head showing large tympanum of male

The ones I saw were all males. In male Bullfrogs, the tympanic membrane (external ear drum) is considerably larger then their eye (in females it is about the same size as the eye). The deep resonating calls have been likened to sounds made by cattle and have also been described by the phrase, jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum.

Black Bear eating wheat

Large Black Bear far off in a wheat field

Overall, the trip produced fewer wildlife sightings than I had hoped. While I did get plenty of views of Wild Turkeys, some Muskrats, Nutria, and even a couple of Gray Foxes, it wasn’t until late the second day that I spotted my first Black Bear, a youngster along the road edge on the south shore of Lake Phelps. As I drove into the Pungo Unit for my final few hours of daylight, I finally saw a large adult Black Bear lying in a field of winter wheat. It was chowing down on the lush greenery and raised up to a sitting position when I stopped to look. After watching it for several minutes I drove on, leaving it to its dinner. I am a bit surprised I didn’t see more bears, but will look for them again later this week when I have a client group down that way. In spite of few bears on this trip, I look forward to whatever this special place cares to offer on my next visit.

A Most Aptly Named Bird

Red-winged Blackbird male on marsh grass

Red-winged Blackbird male on marsh grass (click to enlarge)

I think Delaware got it wrong. The Blue Hen is the official state bird of this fine state, but in both color and species they have missed the boat. My vote would be for the Red-winged Blackbird. Displaying males are the most common species seen at Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges. They are much easier to approach and identify than the other most common birds, a couple of species of shorebirds, which number in the thousands for the next couple of weeks.

Red-winged Blackbird displaying

Male Red-winged Blackbird displaying (click to enlarge)

Male Red-winged Blackbirds have jet-black bodies with a bright red shoulder patch (epaulet) bordered by a yellow stripe at the bottom. And to make it even easier to find them, the males are almost always displaying this time of year.  The most noticeable display is the so-called song spread where a perched male arches forward, spreads its wings to the side and exposes his red epaulets while letting out his distinctive song (usually described by a variation on the phrase konk-a-ree!). This display is meant to defend his territory from rival males and attract a female.

Red-winged Blackbird male on tree sapling

Red-winged Blackbird male displaying (click to enlarge)

I was also able to watch some other interesting behaviors: the sexual chase where a female flies erratically while being pursued by one or more males – this serves to bond the female with her mate; and the song flight – a slow, stalling flight by the male with epaulets exposed, tail spread, accompanied by his song.

Red-winged Blackbird female

Red-winged Blackbird female (click to enlarge)

While displaying males were everywhere along the refuge roadsides, the females were much harder to find. They could be seen briefly darting across the roads pursued by males as described above. And occasionally you could spot one skulking about in the reeds beneath the watchful eyes of the resident male.  Once they start feeding young in a few weeks, they will become much more visible as they tend to be the primary caregivers of the nestlings and will be coming and going to the nest with beaks full of bugs.

Red-winged blackbird flock

Red-winged blackbird flock at Pocosin Lakes in winter (click to enlarge)

I now have an even greater appreciation of one of my highlight birds at my favorite North Carolina refuge, Pocosin Lakes, Each winter, Red-winged Blackbirds congregate on the refuge fields by the tens of thousands and put on an amazing display of synchronized take-offs and flights as they forage and elude the many raptors hunting the refuge. Now I know where at least some of those magnificent flyers get their training.