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Author: Andrew Spencer

Ever heard of Pine Flycatcher?

Ever heard of Pine Flycatcher?

Pine Flycatcher - Durango, Mexico.  Copyright Andrew Spencer.
Pine Flycatcher, June 2015, Parque Natural Mexiquillo, Durango, Mexico. Copyright Andrew Spencer.

No group of birds in the ABA area is as infamous for being difficult to identify as Empidonax flycatchers. The very utterance of that dreaded name can make a beginning birder quiver in fear, and even the most studied of experts have a healthy respect for the challenge they represent. In earbirding terms, “Empids” are just about the ultimate argument for sound over sight. While they are no longer considered identifiable by voice only (knowledge of their visual identification has progressed by leaps and bounds the past few decades), vocals are still the best way to distinguish the various species.

The purpose of this blog post is to draw attention to one of the least known Empidonax species, one that has yet to appear in the ABA area, but is high on the list of many a birder as a potential vagrant: Pine Flycatcher (Empidonax affinis). An inhabitant of montane forests from just shy of the Arizona border to northern Central America, it favors (as one would expect) pine-dominated woodland.

While Pine Flycatcher has yet to appear north of the border, the species is already somewhat infamous for an “almost” that appeared in 2008-2009. For several weeks, an Empid in Choke Canyon, Texas, caused a good deal of excitement when it was identified as a Pine Flycatcher, both on visuals and vocals. Many listers visited and “ticked” the bird before it was re-identified as a Least Flycatcher. Even though, in the end, the bird wasn’t the hoped-for first ABA record, Pine Flycatcher was now “on the radar”.

Pine Flycatcher is still a species that could show up some day. As it is also one of the most poorly known Empid species, both visually and vocally, I’m hoping this blog post will help anyone trying to identify them.

Visually, Pine Flycatcher isn’t one of the more distinctive Empids. It tends to have an overall greenish cast to the upperparts and whitish/dingy coloration to the underparts, but it is not terribly colorful, even by Empid standards. Structure plays a better clue in its identification, as it has long primary projection (like Hammond’s), but also has a long, and narrow, bill with a completely pale mandible. This last feature can be especially useful, as the most common way to see a Pine Flycatcher (at least on the breeding grounds) is to be looking straight up at it as it perches high in a tree.

Away from the breeding grounds, the most commonly heard vocalization of any Empid is typically its contact call. In many species this vocalization is transliterated as a “whit”, while in others it sounds more like “pip”. Pine Flycatcher falls into the “whit” category, but with an important caveat. Almost all of the other species that have a “whit” call are at a similar pitch, and the difference between the calls are down to subtle differences in note shape that give the call a different quality. Pine Flycatcher is distinctly lower pitched, which gives its “whit” call almost a “pip-like” sound. It is very distinctive once learned, and would be a major piece of evidence in favor of a potential vagrant.Empid calls comp_m

In the graphic above (with thanks to Tayler Brooks for her help in its preparation), note how strongest (brightest) part of Pine Flycatcher’s call is nearly 1 kHz below the strongest part of the next lowest “whit”, that of Willow Flycatcher. It also has a smaller bandwidth (that is, covers a small range of frequencies), which contributes to the impression of a “pip” like quality. The other main factor determining the sound quality of each species’ call is the overall steepness of the note, with a larger rise over a shorter time imparting a “drier” (less musical) quality to the call.  On the far right is Hammond’s Flycatcher, just for comparison. Hammond’s give a true “pip”, the effect of having a call that is cleanly overslurred, without an overall rising pitch. This graphic is also a good one to study to visualize the differences between the western ABA breeding Empid species (the intricacies of their call notes will likely be the topic of a future Earbirding post).  You can listen to the various Empid call notes below:

The song of Pine Flycatcher is also distinctive. Though it is less likely to be heard in the US, it wouldn’t be entirely out of the question to have an overshooting bird set up territory somewhere like the Huachucas or Chiricahuas – a pair of Tufted Flycatchers nesting in Ramsey Canyon shows how the crazy isn’t entirely impossible! Like many other western Empid species, Pine Flycatcher has a song made up of three phrases, typically mixed together (especially at dawn). These are A) a bi-syllabic “PIT-wee”, B) a single syllabled “DIT”, and C) a burry “breee”. All of these phrases can be preceded by a variable number of quiet “pip” notes, especially phrase C, which nearly always has 3-4 “pips” included. The sonogram below has one of each phrase, given at a natural interval at dawn.  You can listen to the recording the sonogram is made from here.Pine Flycatcher song_m

As you would expect, Pine Flycatcher has a whole suite of other, more rarely heard calls. These tend to be analogous to the various calls given by our more familiar species, including a twitter series (the first recording linked below), a “pweep” call indicative of high agitation, superficially similar to calls made by Great Crested or Nutting’s Flycatchers (the second recording), and one in the vein of Dusky Flycatcher’s “du-hic” call (no publicly available recordings). These calls are unlikely to be heard from a vagrant bird, but should you find yourself standing in some towering pine forest in Mexico you would do well to keep an ear out for them!

Finally, there has been quite a bit of talk about a potential split of Pine Flycatcher involving differences in birds found north and south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  The reasoning given is that the populations found on either side of the Isthmus have notably different songs.  While there aren’t a whole lot of recordings of the full song of birds found south of Oaxaca, the ones that I have been able to find (such as this one by Kathi Borgmann, and one kindly sent to me by Knut Eisermann) are disappointingly similar to the birds I’ve heard from further north.  While there do appear to be some minor differences in one of the phrases, it is perhaps more on par with differences among populations of Willow Flycatcher currently considered subspecies rather than the differences found between most full-fledged Empid species.  However, that is a conclusion drawn from only two recordings.  I’m quite willing to change my mind if someone goes out and gets a larger sample size showing a more profound difference!

The Toughest Birds to Record in North America

The Toughest Birds to Record in North America

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White-winged Scoter, June 2014, Dempster Highway, Northwest Territories, Canada. Copyright Andrew Spencer.

If you asked most people to list the toughest birds in the ABA area, the list would be a who’s who of hard to find, difficult to access, and shy species.  It might be a list peppered with species requiring a trip to some remote Bering Sea island, or those calling for standing in the bitter cold on a high mountain pass in the middle of the night.  But ask a recordist about the toughest birds in the ABA area and you’ll get a very different list.  Most of the species that I talk about below aren’t really “hard” birds to see.  Some of them can be downright common in the right areas.  But what makes a bird hard to record can be quite different than what makes it hard to find.  True, some of the species below are considered “tough” because of where they’re located – if you could get yourself to the right remote arctic island and you’d get all the recordings you want within a few hours.  It’s the getting there that’s tricky.  But most of the others are “tough” because they just don’t like to make noise.  Or because they only make noise in situations that are hard for the average sound recordist to capture.

For the purposes of this list I decided not to include pelagic species.  Otherwise most of the list would be filled with tubenoses, alcids, and other birds that most of us only see while puking our guts out on the open seas.  I also don’t include any vagrants – to be included on the list the bird must be regular in the ABA.  Finally I didn’t include Gray-headed Chickadee just because, well, I figure that species is a given.  So below I’ve listed, in a (very) rough taxonomic order, 11 species that I would place on the “toughest to record” ranking for North America:

White-winged Scoter.  Clearly this isn’t a rare or tough bird.  So what gives?!  Well, ocean ducks in general aren’t the easiest species to record.  But with most of them, get yourself in the right spot and you can usually get something.  That something may only be a quack or two, or it could be a bizarre and cool-sounding display.  But with White-winged Scoter that right spot seems to be especially hard to find.  I personally have never heard one vocalize on the wintering grounds.  And this past summer I spent quite a bit of time trying to record them on the breeding grounds, and even then only heard them on one occasion!  Luckily I was able to record said occasion.  In general, though, White-winged Scoter seems be one of the toughest “common” species to come to grips with, aurally.

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Steller’s Eider, June 2013, Barrow, Alaska. Copyright Andrew Spencer

Spectacled and Steller’s Eiders.  These two probably won’t come as a surprise – even without taking into account their vocals neither is a particularly easy species to find, unless you get to their high arctic breeding grounds.  But unlike many other remote arctic species, neither of these birds are easy to record even when you do get there.  The male displays in both species are very poorly understood, and even the female calls are rarely recorded.  Like many ocean ducks, these two eiders probably do most of their displaying on the wintering grounds, which (especially in the case of Spectacled) makes for tough recording conditions to say the least!  On the breeding grounds I have heard Steller’s Eiders a couple of times (over dozens of observations), and Spectacled exactly once (over 20 or so occasions).  Definitely not easy birds to record.

Ross’s Goose.  This diminutive white honker is probably unique in its place on this list.  It isn’t here because its hard to find.  Nor is it here because it isn’t very vocal.  Its here because of the existence of it’s bigger, more common, usually noisier, and typically more annoying cousin – Snow Goose.  Finding a pure flock of Ross’s Geese is a challenge to say the least.  Central California is probably your best bet, but given the dearth of recordings available for this species it can’t be easy even there.  I personally haven’t had the chance to go try to record this species, but I expect a challenge whenever I do make the attempt.  The way around the pesky issue of flock purity would be to go to the breeding grounds in Nunavut.  Unfortunately “Nunavut” and “inexpensive trip” are not terms usually used together.

Great Cormorant, Italy. Copyright Ian Davies, used with permission.

Great Cormorant.  This species illustrates another type of entrant to my list of toughies.  I would be willing to bet that,under the right circumstance, Great Cormorants make quite a bit of noise.  And finding them isn’t hard, nor is finding them away from other noisy species.  But finding them when they are vocalizing is another question entirely.  Most cormorants are almost entirely silent away from their breeding colonies, so it would take getting out onto the right rock in the Gulf of Maine to get a recording of this one.  And unfortunately, almost all of those are off limits to lowly sound recordists.

Brandt’s Cormorant.  Ditto to all of the above, but on a different coast.  The Pacific has no shortage of cormorant variety, but this species seems to be especially quiet (even more so than Pelagic Cormorant, which already has a reputation of being a quiet bird).  Unlike Great, though, getting to a Brandt’s colony is (slightly) easier.  Still not a cinch though!

American White Pelican.  You’d think that with such big mouths, Pelicans would be loud birds.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  As adult birds, Pelicans are some of the quietest species on the planet.  The reason Brown Pelican isn’t on this list is that there are several places you can stand near their nests in Florida and record the quite noisy nestlings, but even there you aren’t likely to get the adults saying anything.  But for their White cousins, I am not aware of any place you can easily access a nesting colony.  The only time I have ever heard the species was when I had special access to a colony in Colorado.

Ross’s and Ivory Gulls.  Remember when I talked about getting to the right arctic island and getting your recordings in a couple of hours?  These were the birds I had in mind.  For years now my most wanted recording experience, by far, is to visit and record an Ivory Gull colony.  I’ve even done quite a bit of searching on ways to achieve this, with no success.  And as hard as Ivory Gull is, Ross’s is even harder, now that they’re no longer breeding at Churchill.  Barring visiting a breeding colony, I would bet that during one of the famed invasions of Ivory Gulls to Newfoundland a persistent recordist could snag some audio.  And the same goes for Ross’s at Barrow during their migration.  But as far as I can tell no one has done either.  Yet.

Thayer’s Gull.  This species’s place on here is a mix between the Ross’s Goose problem, the “doesn’t call enough” problem, and the “too many dollars” problem.  Thayer’s Gull isn’t a rare bird in the right locations on the Pacific coast.  But most of the places it does occur it tends to be mixed in with large flocks of other, far noisier gull species.  In general, Thayer’s (and Iceland for that matter) both seem to be rather quiet birds, and even when you do find them, good luck getting them to say something!  And finally, they have the rather annoying habit of breeding on remote sea-cliffs on even more remote high arctic islands.  There are several recordings available in the Macaulay Library, but personally I’m a bit skeptical about their ID (but that’s a subject for another blog post someday).  Until then, I’ll keep trying to snag some audio from one in the Pacific Northwest.

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Turkey Vulture, February 2014, Costa Rica. Copyright Andrew Spencer.

Hook-billed Kite.  I am including this species here not just because its a hard to find species that doesn’t lend itself to recordable encounters.  I include it because even when you do manage to find one, and even when you have it at point-blank range, they still don’t say much!  Raptors in general are some of the harder species to record, but spend enough time with most of them and you usually get something.  But I’ve seen many, many Hook-billed Kites (in the tropics), but have only heard them once.  There may be some bias on my part there – perhaps I haven’t spent enough time around nesting birds, or territorial ones.  But in general I’d list this as one of the toughest species to hear.

Turkey Vulture.  Now a lot of the species I talk about above are fairly common species.  But I’ve saved the commonest,most omnipresent, for last.  This bird, familiar to even most non-birders, is a regular sight in most of the lower 48 during the summer.  But when was the last time you heard one?  I’ve seen I don’t know how many Turkey Vultures in my life, and I’ve heard exactly one.  Ever.  And I didn’t manage to record it.  New World Vultures in general tend to be some of the least vocal birds on the planet, so its place on this list shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.  But even so, it’s hard to think of such a common species as being on a “toughest” list.  The best way to get a recording of this bird would be to remote-mic a roadkill (and that has been done).  Another option would be to find a nest – but then the adult might just puke on you instead of calling.  Come to think of it, I bet that would make a cool recording…

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Waxwing, Nabesna Road, Alaska. These chicks were approximately 10-12 days old when this photo was taken, and weren’t shy about making some noise! © Andrew Spencer.

I can still remember the first time I saw a waxwing.  I had only been birding for a year or two, and I had already picked out Cedar Waxwing as one of my most wanted birds.  I was six at the time, and I did most of my birding with my grandmother, either on Long Island (where I lived at the time) or in western Massachusetts (where she had her house).  We had searched for waxwings several times, to no avail, so I was overjoyed when I first laid eyes on them.

It took far longer for me to come to grips with their larger cousins, Bohemian Waxwing.  By then I knew enough to pay attention to how birds sounded, and I can still remember the high-pitched, tinkling trill they let out, so different from Cedars.  And then that was all I ever heard from them, every time I saw one.  It’s a gorgeous sound from a gorgeous bird, but would it hurt for them to throw a little variation in?  It turns out that waxwings have some of the simplest repertoires of all passerines, with no true “song”, or at least none that has been documented.  And even their calls are typically variations on the same trill.

Or so I thought.  This past summer I was privileged to be able to spend a lot of time recording in the far northern parts of North America.  Among the many species I was hoping to target was Bohemian Waxwing, on the vague theory that they must have more than just that trill call, and if they did I would be most likely to hear it on the breeding grounds.  At first I was rather frustrated.  I found waxwings aplenty, but they just would not cooperate!  Unlike in those big, practically tame flocks I was used to from irruption years in Colorado, Bohemian Waxwings in the taiga were quiet, shy, and rarely in groups larger than three or four birds.

But then I lucked out.  I was driving along the Nabesna Road in eastern Alaska when I heard the distinctive trill of a Bohemian Waxwing out the window.  I worked my way into the stunted black spruce muskeg and was rather surprised when I found a pair of birds that were much less shy than I had come to expect.  The reason why became apparent a short while later when I saw one of the birds carrying nesting material to a spruce tree.  “Here it is,” I thought, “my chance to record some different vocalizations!”  And with that in mind I stood behind a nearby spruce and trained my mic on the birds as they built their nest.  But as I sat their recording them I was more and more disappointed – they occasionally gave either long or short versions of their normal trill, but nothing different.  It wasn’t until I listened to a cut I made where both birds landed together at the nest site that I heard a barely audible, amazingly variable sound unlike any I’d ever heard from Bohemian Waxwings before.  Jackpot!  That eureka moment recording (and a photo of the bird making it) are linked below:

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Bohemian Waxwing, Nabesna Road, Alaska. © Andrew Spencer.

I then carefully snuck out of the bog. I was going to pass by the Nabesna Road again in about a month, and I had the perfect setup waiting for me.  If (and it’s always a big if with nesting birds) the pair of waxwings didn’t abandon the nest, and nothing predated the young, I’d have a “captive audience” on my return trip to see what else waxwings can say.

From that first observation of the pair I noticed several things.  First, the birds had both very short (only a few notes) and more normal long versions of their trills, and they seemed to serve different functions.  The long trills, what I consider the classic Bohemian Waxwing call, were typically given at long intervals and most often when a bird took off from an exposed perch.  The short trills, on the other hand, were given much more frequently, often by a bird perched prominently on a spruce tree, both when the other member of the pair was present and when it had flown off.  Playback of the long call either elicited no response, or the bird flew away, whereas the short call would bring the bird in close, and at times even low.  My suspicion is that the short call serves some kind of territorial purpose, but even after watching the birds for a long while I am not entirely sure.  Examples of both the long calls and short calls are here:

Fast forward a month, and I was back on the Nabesna Road.  I was ecstatic to find that the nest was still there, and four well-feathered young were looking healthy and alert in it!  Before I even got into position to record the nest I got a good recording of another, completely different vocalization – a very high-pitched, clear, descending whistle, very much like the “seer” call of a thrush.  This was clearly an alarm call, given at my presence, though the birds quickly calmed down and resumed their normal behavior.  I was beginning to wonder if that’s all the waxwings would do in alarm when a passing band of Gray Jays decided to drop in.  Boy did the waxwings take offense at that!  One of the birds outdid itself in driving off the offending jays, giving two more alarm calls while at it.  The first, given only twice an apparently in extreme alarm, was a harsh, low-pitched growl.  This was quickly followed by short trills that, while higher-pitched than the growl call, were significantly lower-pitched than their normal trills.  Some loud bill snapping was also thrown into the mix, making for quite the varied repertoire of alarm sounds!  You can hear both the clear whistle call and the other alarm sounds below:

Once everything had returned to normal I took the opportunity to record the young begging.  Compared to the alarm calls the adults gave these calls were rather boring, essentially just a noisy version of the adult trills.  That recording is linked below:

The time I spent with Bohemian Waxwings this past summer was near the top of my list of highlights for my trip to Alaska.  But even with everything I recorded from them, I think there is still more to be captured.  A few winters ago my friend Ian Davies heard what may actually be a stereotyped song from the species (something that has never been described or recorded) that:

“sounded almost like the pattern of a White-winged Crossbill song but with the calls of a Bohemian Waxwing…a longer sustained note of the standard musical rolling note, on one pitch, for maybe 1-1.5s, and then changing without stopping to another pitch, all of this with the standard clipped musical quality”

So there’s clearly more to discover about waxwings – a chance for anyone with a mic, or even an iPhone, to document something new if they’re in the right place at the right time!

More Than Just a Mudsucker

More Than Just a Mudsucker

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Pectoral Sandpiper, Barrow, Alaska. This photo was taken as the bird was puffing up its pectoral pouch right before it took off for its flight display. © Andrew Spencer.

When most birders in North America think of shorebirds, they probably think of little brown and gray birds running around on mudflats.  Sure, they may also think of large flocks and the joy of picking through lots of common birds to find some coveted rarity.  Or they may even think of colorful juveniles or breeding adults covered in subtly beautiful patterning.  Ask them about the voices of shorebirds, and they may think of the challenge of learning shorebirds by call, often considered to be squarely in the realm of advanced birding.

What most of those same birders probably don’t envision when thinking of shorebirds are the complicated and amazing displays they perform on their arctic breeding grounds.  What was once a bird that made just a few simple, short chips or churrs suddenly has a large and varied repertoire that includes complicated aerial acrobatics, and sounds as varied as low-pitched hooting to amazingly insect-like twittering.  The first time I stood out on the tundra in Alaska I was blown away by everything I was seeing and hearing, and I’ve never looked at shorebirds the same way again.

That’s not to say you have to go to the Arctic to see this amazing show.  Most shorebirds have breeding displays of one sort or another, even those breeding in the lower 48.  And some migrant species that breed further north will sing and display (usually half-heartedly) on their way up – the species most likely to do this seem to be yellowlegs and dowitchers.  But even though you can go to the prairie and watch a Mountain Plover sing while doing a butterfly flight, or see a Long-billed Curlew while it’s traveling in a large, undulating circle over the grasslands while mournfully whistling, they don’t hold quite the same draw as the higher latitude breeding species.

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Red Knot, Nome, Alaska. This bird was giving a few of the calls discussed below, but was not heard to sing. © Andrew Spencer.

There isn’t nearly enough space here to go into all the different displays and songs from all the different Arctic breeders, so I’ll cover three of my favorites – Red Knot, and Rock and Pectoral Sandpipers.  Someday I may write another blog post covering some of the others…there’s no shortage of material to draw on!

I’ll start with Red Knot because perhaps more than any other species it demonstrates how different shorebirds are on their breeding grounds.  Generally, when migrating or wintering this species is among the quietest of all shorebirds.  Not that it won’t call, but it seems to do it less often, and more softly, than most species.  But up on the breeding grounds in Alaska it’s an entirely different beast.  Not only does it typically breed far from the nearest mudflat (and sometimes nearest open water!), on barren rocky tundra, but it also has some shockingly loud and strident vocalizations!  Its main song (the first of the recordings below) is given during a prolonged (sometimes >30 min) display flight during which it rises high into the air and moves in a large, slow circle while fluttering its wings shallowly and rapidly.  It will repeat the same whistle for a long time before suddenly breaking into a different, louder whistle and then returning to the first whistle.  The second recording below is an entire flight display, lasting three minutes and starting out with a few other calls before it begins singing.

On the ground Red Knots will make a few other calls.  The first two recordings below were both given after playback, and typically included some calls given on a short flight off the ground and others given while perched.  I’ve also heard them given during encounters with other Knots, so they likely represent a higher degree of agitation than their normal flight song.  The next two recordings are the two different types of alarm calls that I’ve heard, both given by a bird near young, flightless chicks.  The first was given during a broken wing display (which many shorebirds have), and the sound is likely meant to mimic the squeals of a hurt mammal and draw potential predators away from the nest or young.  The second was made when the same bird was a bit calmer, but still trying to draw my attention away from the nearby chicks.

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Rock Sandpiper, Nome, Alaska. This individual was heard giving RRC and “song”. © Andrew Spencer.

Next up is a species that most birders aren’t terribly familiar with (unless you live in the Pacific Northwest) – Rock Sandpiper.  The west coast equivalent of Purple Sandpiper, this species is typically local and uncommon in the lower 48 during the winter months only, most often found from northern California northward.  They also tend to not be very vocal on their wintering grounds, though it isn’t uncommon to hear a rough “churt” when they flush.  In Alaska they breed on a variety of tundra habitats (depending on the subspecies), and unsurprisingly have quite a variety of calls and songs.  Rock Sandpiper illustrates one of the problems when classifying shorebird vocalizations – what exactly is their “song”?  There are three vocalizations that seem to fill that purpose in this species.  The first recording below is an example of what is called “Rhythmically Repeated Call” (RRC) in many shorebirds species.  It tends to be given during a prolonged flight display in which the bird flutters with shallow wingbeats well of the ground.  Actually, RRC is one of the least variable shorebird sounds – for example, compare the one below to the RRC of Baird’s Sandpiper (the first few phrases, and then for longer after the flight songs).

The next two recordings below are what BNA calls the “song” of Rock Sandpiper.  It is typically given in a short flight low over the ground, and typically with a long break between strophes.  Then there’s my favorite Rock Sand voc – what BNA calls the “cricket call” – a remarkable sound so out of character for what I had stereotyped as a quiet, bland shorebird, that I nearly fell over laughing the first time I heard it.  The “cricket call” is typically given by birds on the ground, and the only times I’ve heard it have been when the bird was acting especially territorial (after encounters with other Rock Sandpipers or after playback).  The names of these three territorial vocalizations could be simplified to “long song” (the RRC), “short song” (what BNA calls song), and “ground song” (the cricket call).

Rock Sandpipers also have a variety of calls that are only heard in the Arctic.  The classic “churt” call is still heard there, most often when the bird is flushed (see the first two recordings below).  When more alarmed they also give what BNA calls a “bleating” call, which like the RRC is a common call type among shorebirds – see XC141733 from Semipalmated Sandpiper and XC149250 (the first call) from Western Sandpiper.  The final call type below was given by two birds during an aggressive encounter, and is harder to pigeonhole into one of BNA’s categories.

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Pectoral Sandpiper, Barrow, Alaska. This picture was taken immediately after it performed one hooting song as it was puffing up to go into another. © Andrew Spencer.

Perhaps no species illustrates how remarkable shorebirds are on their breeding grounds better than Pectoral Sandpiper.  This bird is familiar to birders throughout the lower 48, and many of them are even familiar with the distinctive calls it gives during migration.  But “Pecs” on the Arctic are a completely different animal.  Instead of a small shorebird content to hang out with peeps, distinguished only by its larger size, more boldly marked plumage, and slightly different shape, on the breeding grounds they turn into show-stealing songsters.  The classic “song” of the species is unlike any other sound on the Arctic, and any other shorebird in the New World – the male bird sits on an exposed tussock, slowly inflating its pectoral pouch and ruffling its black-based breast feathers before suddenly launching itself into the air and flying low over the ground.  Partway into the flight its wings slow into a more exaggerated butterfly flight and it begins emitting a low-pitched hooting series, pumping its head in time with each hoot while its expanded pectoral pouch hangs underneath like a bosom.  Right after the series ends it suddenly undulates up into the air a few times before circling back around and landing again.  It’s a show like no other!  Linked below is a recording of the hooting song; note also the quiet mechanical sounds given by the wings during the second half of the vocalization.

Like Rock Sandpiper, “Pecs” also have a “ground song”.  This vocalization is usually given when a male bird is displaying to a nearby female, with the male strutting on the ground with its head lowered and tail cocked, while chasing after the female bird and giving a low-pitched growl call in a quick series.  See the second recording above for an example.

If that was all Pectoral Sandpiper did, it would already be one of the top drawer dancers of the Arctic.  But the hooting song isn’t even my favorite sound that the species makes.  Where Pectoral Sandpiper truly gets amazing is when another male happens to notice that the other is displaying to a female bird, or decides he wants to start a fight.  Then both birds will take off into a quick chase while uttering a hilarious series of gurgling notes unlike any other bird I can think of.  See the first cut below for an example.  But even that is not the peak of Pectoral virtuosity!  When a male bird really gets going it will break out into another ground display where it gives a rough hooting series like a mix between the flight song and ground songs, interspersed with a much higher-pitched, mechanical sounding trills!  This performance is usually mixed with a number of the other songs and display sounds, and makes for an unforgettable experience.  The second recording below is a mish-mash of various “Pec” sounds, with the excited display starting at 0:40.

As expected, Pectoral Sandpiper also gives its normal flight calls while on the Arctic.  Additionally, they will sometimes give a much lower-pitched and longer guttural call that, while I’ve heard further south, is much more common in the north. Below are examples of that call and a more normal flight call.  The female can also be heard giving more normal flight calls in the excited display cut linked above, along with some high-pitched raspy calls that I believe function as distraction calls near a nest.

All of the above barely scratches the surface of shorebird vocal variety, but does provide an overview of what they are capable of.  If you find yourself inspired to learn more, browse through Xeno-Canto – many North American species are fairly well represented.  Or, even better, take a trip to the Arctic and hear them for yourself!  Take my word for it, it’s the experience of a lifetime.

How to Identify a Timberline Sparrow

How to Identify a Timberline Sparrow

Timberline Sparrow - Andrew Spencer
Timberline Sparrow, Mount McIntyre, Yukon. This individual was an especially boldly marked and patterned individual. Copyright Andrew Spencer.

Brewer's Sparrow - Luke Seitz
Brewer’s Sparrow, Mojave Desert, California. Copyright Luke Seitz.

It’s hard to deny – among many birders there is a preconception that sparrows are brown and boring looking.  And while I would argue that point for many of the species in the group, it isn’t very easy to defend Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri).  It’s a small, brown, and subtly marked bird that doesn’t stand out much when you see it.  But just wait until you are standing on a sage flat in the pre-dawn and hear a Brewer’s Sparrow!  There are few auditory experiences in the west as sublime as being out in the crisp, cool air, surrounded by the smell of sagebrush, and hearing the tinkling buzzes of Brewer’s Sparrow all around you.

In addition to having one of the best voices in the west, Brewer’s Sparrow also has an interesting taxonomic facet to its name.  The nominate breweri subspecies is familiar to most anyone who birds in the appropriate habitat.  Less well known is that there is another subspecies – taverneri – that was first described as a separate species from far to the north of most Brewer’s Sparrows (Swarth and Brooks 1925).  Unlike the nominate subspecies, it is restricted to stunted, willow-dominate thickets right below treeline – hence the common name of “Timberline” Sparrow.  It was later lumped with Brewer’s Sparrow, but recent morphometric and genetic studies have again raised interest in the form (see Klicka et al 1999). For a long while conventional wisdom said that Timberline Sparrow occurred only well north of Brewer’s, in an isolated range centered around southern Yukon.  But as more people studied the bird it was found to also occur near treeline further south, first in the Canadian Rockies, and then in Montana.  Birds have been found in similar habitats even further south, to at least southern Colorado, but it is less well known what to make of these birds (more on this later in the post).

Timberline Sparrow - Andrew Spencer
Timberline Sparrow, Jasper National Park, Alberta. This individual (a female) was among the most dully patterned individuals I saw, closest to Brewer’s in appearance. Copyright Andrew Spencer.

Before I dive into the vocals of these birds, a bit on the visual identification.  As Brewer’s Sparrow doesn’t have much in the way of obvious field marks under the best of circumstances, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that telling Timberline from the nominate isn’t easy by any means.  The most often cited field marks are usually bill size (Timberline has a longer but thinner bill), strength of the face pattern and crown streaking (noticeably stronger in Timberline), overall color (noticeably grayer in Timberline), and sometimes some faint streaking on the flanks or sides of the chest in Timberline.  All of these marks are hard to use in isolation, at least for someone without a lot of experience with both forms.  Personally, I believe that if I spent time closely looking at migrant or wintering Brewer’s Sparrows I might be able to find birds that I have a strong suspicion are Timberlines, but that I wouldn’t be able to make a claim with certainty.

Enter vocals.  Differences in the song between Brewer’s and Timberline are the most often cited difference between the two.  Before getting into the nitty-gritty of it all, though, we need a bit of a primer in the sounds that Brewer’s Sparrow (sensu lato) make – it’s more complicated than just song and call.  That wonderful dawn chorus I mentioned in the intro to this post is what is known as the “long song” – a successive series of different trills, typically starting out very high-pitched and then descending into a long string that can sometimes last 20 seconds or more.  Mostly given very early in the morning and late in the evening, it can sometimes be heard at other times of the day but generally less often.  Below is an spectrograph of long song from Mesa County, Colorado, to demonstrate the structure of the voc.Brewer's Sparrow_long song spec

The other song of the species is appropriately known as the “short song”.  This vocalization, much shorter than long song, is typically comprised of one to three different trilled phrases, each phrase most often (but not always) even in pitch, but different in pitch from the previous one.  It is also one of the most variable songs in the west – some birds can sound startlingly like Chipping Sparrow, while others incorporate elements almost reminiscent of Prairie or Blue-winged Warbler songs. When you hear a Brewer’s Sparrow during daylight hours it is much more likely to be giving this vocalization than the long song, though again there are exceptions to this.  Most Brewer’s Sparrows only have one short song that they give, whereas long song can be variable in terms of which trilled elements they include.  If you want to read more on the different song types, Arch McCallum has a page dedicated to the topic here.

Like most other sparrows, Brewer’s also has various calls – flight call, chip call, twitter, etc.  I don’t really go into those here, in part due to very small sample size available from Timberline Sparrow of these calls, and also since I don’t personally believe that they can be identified to form.

Of the two song types, it is long song that I believe is most readily distinguishable between the two forms.  The “classic” long song of breweri typically sounds very buzzy throughout, descending from very high-pitched, insect-like buzzes to lower pitched buzzes, but rarely having anything that one would describe as “musical” about them.  This is due to the broadband nature of all of the elements of the song.  Most phrases in the long song are made up of two alternating notes that comprise the buzz, and in nominate breweri both of these elements are broadband, or if one is less so then the broadband one dominates.  Below are several examples of long song from breweri from around their range.

The long song of Timberline Sparrow, on the other hand, gives a much less buzzy impression.  The overall structure of the song is the same – it typically starts out with very high-pitched, insect-like phrases that quickly descend into the variable series of trills.  The difference comes in the fact that elements of the majority of the phrases in the song are noticeably less broadband than in breweri, so that they sound more musical and tinkling.  This difference isn’t huge, and there is considerable variation, so it is important to listen to enough of the song to get a general impression rather than make the call on just one or two elements.  In general, though, I think that once you’ve gotten a handle on how each subspecies sounds when long singing you can tell the different most if not all of the time.  Listen to several examples of Timberline Sparrow below (from four different birds; the first three are from the same individual in the Yukon, the next five from different birds in Alberta) and see if you can tell the difference:

When it comes to short songs, these differences can also apply.  Unfortunately, short songs seem to be a less reliable way to distinguish Timberline from Brewer’s.  The main reason for this is probably that in long song there are lots of difference elements and the impression the entire vocalization gives is a composite of how they sound, whereas in short song you only have a few to draw on.  So say you get a Brewer’s on the musical end of the range of variation and a Timberline on the buzzy end there could be some overlap.  That said, I do believe that on average the short songs of Timberline are less broadband and more musical.  First, here are a variety of breweri short song, both on the buzzy and musical ends of variation:

And here are two examples of Timberline short songs, one on the musical end and one on the buzzier end:

So by now you’re thinking “great! Now I can easily tell the difference between Timberline and Brewer’s, at least by the long song”).  Unfortunately there’s reason to be cautious; the differences between these two forms aren’t entirely black and white.  There are some recordings out there of breweri that are less buzzy than average, approaching Timberline.  And when you listen to the long songs of Brewer’s that I link above you can hear that the examples from California seem to be a bit less buzzy than those from Colorado.  When you combine this with a relatively small sample size of available Timberline Sparrow recordings and it’s hard to be completely certain how reliable the vocal differences are.  That said, I personally have never heard a Brewer’s Sparrow that sang a long song entirely like that of the Timberline Sparrows I’ve heard.  But if you’re investigating a suspect bird on territory out of the known range of one form or the other, I would want more than just one line of evidence before making the call.

This is especially relevant to birders in states where Brewer’s Sparrows have been found breeding near or at treeline but south of the known range of Timberline Sparrow.  A few years ago there was a lot of buzz about this issue in Colorado, where I am from.  Most birders in the state accepted that these birds breeding in highland stunted willow patches were a southern range extension of Timberline Sparrow, and that they were different than the more widespread Brewer’s Sparrow they were all familiar with.  And I’ll admit I was also in that camp, at least to start.

But then back in 2007 I actively tracked down two different populations of these highland birds.  I was rather surprised, at the time, at how un-different they were.  The first group I recorded all sang songs that sounded unremarkable to me.  In the second group, though, I did find a bird that was noticeably more musical and stood out, but it was surrounded by birds that were “normal”.  Here’s the recording I made of that more musical sounding individual.  Sounds a lot like Timberline Sparrow, doesn’t it?

What was going on?  To this day I am not entirely sure.  At the time my theory was that lowland breeding breweri moved upslope after their first brood to breed in dry stunted willow habitat superficially similar to the sage flats they used lower down.  But now I am unsure.  I didn’t record any long songs from either of those populations, and knowing what I do now after having more experience with definite Timberline Sparrows I am unwilling to make a call until I record some long songs from these southern highland birds.  It remains one of those exciting areas that needs to be looked into, a place where anyone with a recorder willing to make the effort to be standing on a high-mountain hillside waiting for the dawn can help unravel a mystery.

North by Northwest

North by Northwest

"Northwestern" Crow. This crow from La Push, Washington (on the outer Olympic coast) is supposedly a Northwestern Crow according to various sources. But is it really? Photo by Andrew Spencer.

There are few species in North America as ambiguous as Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus).  Even in a group of birds that are exceedingly similar the differences between American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and Northwestern Crow are minuscule at best.  The only “surefire” way to tell them apart is by range; however a number of sources also cite vocal differences as a distinguishing characteristic (e.g., the Sibley Guide, some versions of the National Geographic Guide, Birds of North America).

American Crow is a very familiar bird to most people in the US – it occurs throughout the lower 48, except for certain areas near the Mexican border.  Northwestern Crow is typically described as being found from northwestern-most Washington state along the Pacific coast to Alaska, as far west as Kodiak Island and the adjacent mainland.  Outside of a narrow overlap zone in Washington state and southern British Colombia you can typically call the species by range alone.

But the situation is more complex than just being able to tick a bird for your list based on where you are.  The American Crows found along the Pacific coast (ssp. hesperis) are at the small end of the spectrum for the species, sometimes look slightly “shinier”, and have subtly but noticeably different voices than American Crows further east (as an aside, the official designation of what constitutes hesperis is murky at best, and birds from as far away as Utah or Colorado could be this subspecies depending on some readings of the literature).

For a long time I’ve had a theory that the real “Northwestern” Crow was actually a “Pacific” Crow, since the American Crows along the northern California and Oregon coasts  sounded and looked more like “Northwestern” Crows in Washington and further north, and different from the American Crows further east.  If this was true, I theorized, then the crows west of the Cascades in the more humid areas of Washington, Oregon, and California, were a different species than those east of the Cascades in the drier rainshadow of the mountains.

So on a few recent trips I’ve taken to Washington I’ve made an effort to record crows wherever I found them, including going out to what were supposed to be the most “pure” Northwestern Crows left in the state, on the San Juan Islands and along the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula.  I also recorded some crows to the east of the Cascades, from the Okanogan Valley and further east.  What I was hoping to find was either that the supposedly pure “Northwestern” Crows had a notably different voice than the taxonomically ambiguous ones around Seattle and along the outer coast in southern Washington, OR that all the crows west of the Cascades had similar voices that were different than crows to the east.

Unfortunately, as often happens with research of this type, what I found was different than either ideal situation.  I’ve been able to hear what I feel are distinguishable differences between birds in Colorado and the ones in western Washington.  But when I compared birds I recorded to the east of the Cascades in Washington I begin to hear what sounds like the start of a cline to the birds in Colorado.  Recordings from further afield, in Oregon, California, and British Colombia seem to continue this cline.  On the other side of the spectrum, though, when comparing the crows at the northwestern end of the range of American Crow to Northwestern Crows from Washington and further north into Alaska I don’t hear any vocal differences.  This would seem to show that the end of the cline in crow vocalizations is not where the species boundaries are currently drawn.

When comparing the sounds from various crows it’s important to have an idea of what vocalizations each species makes.  Anyone who has ever listened to a crow knows they have a remarkably large repertoire, everything from caws to screeches to rattles to song-like warbles.  The most common calls, though, are variations on the “caw” call.  These can typically be lumped into two groups, long and short, but there is a nearly complete continuum between those.  Often within any individual bird the long calls sound lower and more nasal, so care has to be taken when comparing different individual crows and making assumptions about differences in pitch.  Here are two cuts from the same individual bird in Washington showing a long and a short “caw”.

Ok so now to start the comparisons – listen here to what I consider a “typical” American Crow call from most of the continent, first longer calls then shorter:

And here is what I consider a typical American Crow from the Seattle area:

And a few from further east in Washington:

And here are some American Crows from further south along the Pacific coast:

Also listen to ML#13108 from the Willamette Valley of Oregon, ML#118854 from Tulare County, California, and ML#58191 from Hedley, British Colombia, all inland locations.

The ones around Seattle to my ears sound a bit more nasal, and on average slightly lower pitched than the birds from east of Washington state.  It isn’t a huge difference, and there is some overlap, but whenever I arrive in Seattle after spending time in Colorado or further east I hear the difference.  The birds from Okanogan County to the east of the Cascades sound similar to the Seattle birds to my ear, but are starting to having a hint of an eastern “accent”, as are the birds from coastal California. The recording from Oregon, though, sounds more eastern to my ears, and the ones from Tulare County, California, and British Colombia sound eastern to me.

Now listen to the calls of putative “Northwestern” Crows, also from Washington:

Not very different, right?  And here are links to some Northwestern Crows in the Macaulay Library from further north, far enough away from American Crow to be pure, supposedly: ML#132185, ML#136466, ML#58198.

Also not very different from the American Crows in Washington!

There are still some potential wrinkles to work out.  Without knowing the sex of the crow recorded it’s hard to determine what potential differences in male and female voices there are and how that affects the variation.  And it’s hard to get a real handle on the complete variation in each population without more recordings.

Now I can’t comment on the distinctiveness of Northwestern Crow based on genetics, structure or plumage, or physiological differences.  But I would contend that despite what many field guides, and BNA say, there are no compelling vocal differences between that species and American Crows in the Pacific Northwest.  With this lack of a vocal dividing line there seems to be little support for drawing the species boundaries in their current location.  Add to that the apparent evidence of a cline between the crows in the Pacific Northwest and those east of the mountains to the birds even further east, and the evidence for having two species at all starts to look weak indeed.

Rufous Antpitta Feature

Rufous Antpitta Feature

Rufous Antpitta, Yanacocha, Pichincha, Ecuador, January 2012. Copyright Andrew Spencer.

Antpittas are one of those quintessential groups of tropical birds.  They may not be colorful, like tanagers, coatings, or manakins, nor are they large and noisy birds that are out in the open and in your face, like toucans or parrots.  But there’s just something about them and their weird, nearly tailless bodies on top of stilt like legs, and their way of moving through the dense growth in bounding leaps that makes them irresistible.  Add that to the fact they’re rarely seen and they are usually among the most wanted birds on a visit to the southlands.

Because antpittas are shy and rarely seen, their vocalizations tend to get a lot of attention.  After all, it’s an exceedingly rare event that you see an antpitta before you hear it!  In addition to being a good way to find them, it’s also a good way to learn something about their taxonomy.  Since antpittas are suboscines, they don’t learn their songs, and systematic differences in their vocalizations indicates some underlying genetic difference as well.  It was vocal variation, in part, that resulted in the recent split of Sucre Antpitta (Grallaricula cumanensis) from Slate-crowned Antpitta (Grallaricula nana; SACC 421).  And there are other groups that are just begging to be studied: Tawny Antpittas (Grallaria quitensis) sound different between Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; Chestnut Antpitta (Grallaria blakei) has a little known and unnamed southern population that sounds different from the more common northern one; Rusty-breasted Antpitta (Grallaricula ferrugineipectus) is already split by many authorities (though not the South American Checklist Committee) into northern and southern forms because of their different songs and calls.  And beating them all, Rufous Antpitta has no less than SEVEN vocal types, all very different from the others, that surely represent a number of separate species.

And it’s that species that I’ve just written a Xeno-Canto feature on. Given its exceptional complexity, even for a tropical species group, I also made a map (shown below) of where the various subspecies occur, and added map points for the specific recordings I discuss in the feature. From north to south the (sub)species shown are: spatiator (dark blue), saltuensis (brown, no recordings), unnamed ssp (green), nominate rufula (purple), cajamarcae (yellow), obscura (light blue), and occabambae and cochabambae (red). If you want to read more about Rufous Antpittas and their remarkable vocal variation, follow this link and read on!

View Rufous Antpitta subspecies distribution in a larger map

How Fast Is That Vireo Singing?

How Fast Is That Vireo Singing?

Gray Vireo, Rabbit Valley, Mesa Co., Colorado, May 2012 (copyright Andrew Spencer)

I can still remember the first time I heard a vireo “complex song”.  It was after completing a transect for Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory  in San Miguel county, Colorado, as I was walking through some pinyon-juniper forest, looking for things to record.  I found a singing Plumbeous Vireo, and set up to record it singing.  No sooner I had turned on the recorder, though, when it started belting out this crazy run-on jumbled song!  I was taken completely by surprise, not even knowing Plumbeous Vireos had it in them to sing so awesomely.

Since that day I’ve heard complex song from many vireo species, but it’s still something I don’t hear very often, and a treat whenever I do.  This type of vireo song is mentioned fairly extensively in BNA, often under different names.  For Bell’s and Black-capped Vireo it’s called “courtship song”, and said to be given when the male is closely associated with the female bird.  For other species, such as Plumbeous Vireo, it’s called “complex song”, and said to be given in a variety of circumstances.  In my experience, though, it’s most often given by agitated birds, either after playback, or after an encounter with another member of their species.   Occasionally a song that is either complex song, or possibly subsong, is heard from birds during fall migration as well.

Most vireo complex songs tend to follow a pattern, with song-like phrases mixed with high, squeaky notes.  There appears to be some variability, with a higher agitation rate correlating to fewer song-like notes, more high-pitched notes, a faster pace, and sometimes a longer strophe length.  The Solitary Vireo complex, Gray, Warbling, and Yellow-throated Vireos all fall into this broad pattern.  Hutton’s Vireo also seems to belong in this group, though like its primary song, its complex song is also atypical.

Black-capped and Bell’s Vireos seem to give more discrete complex songs, called courtship song in BNA for both these species.  In both species the complex song is reminiscent of their primary song, but quieter, faster, and more jumbled sounding, but without the long, continuous run-on character of the above group and without the incorporated high-pitched squeaky notes.  White-eyed Vireo may also fall into this group, though it’s song seems to have more call-like elements and is more run-on.

A third group, made up on Red-eyed and Black-whiskered (and presumably Philadelphia) Vireos seems to rarely give a complex song at all.  Indeed, BNA doesn’t mention such a vocalization for Philadelphia or Red-eyed Vireo, and only briefly for Black-whiskered.  What I’ve heard from Red-eyed sounded more like the complex songs of the first group than the second, but in general seem less well differentiated from the primary song.

Below are examples of complex songs for every species for which I could find recordings.  Needless to say, if any of you reading this have recordings of species not represented here, or more examples of any of these species, please let me know!

Plumbeous Vireo

Probably because I consider it the “default” vireo complex song I’m going to cover this species first.  All of the vireos of the Solitary Vireo complex sing similar complex songs; typically these are fast, jumbled series of song-like notes, call-like notes, and high-pitched squeaky notes.

Blue-headed Vireo

The complex song of the eastern representative of the Solitary Vireo complex sounds similar to Plumbeous Vireo, and there are perhaps more recordings of complex song from this species than any other.  In addition to the examples from xeno-canto below, the Macaulay Library has three cuts: ML#84774, 84775, and 100870.

Cassin’s Vireo

The complex song of this species is like the above two in broad details.  The only recording I was able to find was one at the Macaulay Library: ML#105665

Yellow-throated Vireo

There is remarkably little information on the complex song of Yellow-throated Vireo. Macaulay has two cuts (ML#164094 and ML#73885) of sounds tending towards complex song, and it seems like it would fall into the same mold as the Solitary Vireo group.

Gray Vireo

From the limited sample size of the complex song of this local western species it seems that it sings this vocalization with more distinct song-like notes, mixed with high-pitched squeaky notes, but without the harsh call-like notes of the Solitary Vireo complex.  BNA says of this vocalization “most frequently heard on breeding grounds (central Arizona and w. Texas), but also heard on wintering grounds in Big Bend region, Texas (JCB) and Sonora, Mexico.”

White-eyed Vireo

Of all the vireo species, the complex song of White-eyed Vireo is perhaps the most striking.  It is a remarkable series of run-on calls, mixing song-like elements, call-like elements, and things in between.  BNA calls this vocalization “rambling song”, and says “Rambling Song is produced by adult males in a variety of contexts and frequently by immature birds.”

Warbling Vireo

As if the song of this bird wasn’t complex enough already! The few times I’ve heard Warbling Vireo complex song it fell into the general mold of this vocalization type: song-like notes mixed with higher pitched squeaky notes. The examples I’ve heard don’t seem to mix in any call-like notes. BNA doesn’t even mention this song type for this species, and given the number of Warbling Vireos I’ve seen and heard and how rarely I’ve heard complex song from them I suspect this is a relatively rarely given vocalization.

Hutton’s Vireo

A somewhat atypical species of Vireo by North American standards, the complex song of Hutton’s Vireo falls into the same category.  Like the others above, however, it contains song-like elements and high-pitched squeaky notes.  Overall, though, it is a slower song than the other vireo species, and differs less from the primary song in this regard.  BNA makes no mention of complex song for Hutton’s Vireo.

Bell’s Vireo

BNA calls the complex song of Bell’s Vireo “courtship song”, and says that it is given when the male is in close proximity to the female. That, coupled with the distinctive nature of this vocalization (it tends to come in more discrete phrases without either the high-pitched squeaky notes or call-like notes given in other vireo complex songs) suggests that it falls into another sub-group of vireo complex songs.

Black-capped Vireo

Black-capped Vireo complex song tends more towards that of Bell’s Vireo than that of other vireo species, but seems to contain more calls and fewer song-like elements. It almost sounds like a mix between Bell’s and White-eyed Vireo fast songs. Like in Bell’s Vireo, BNA calls this vocalization “courtship song” and says it is mostly given when the male is in close proximity to the female bird.

Red-eyed Vireo

The closest I can find to a recordings of the complex song for this species are linked below.  I’ve heard other instances of complex song by Red-eyed Vireo that tend a bit more towards the Solitary Vireo type, but in general it seems that this species has more song-like notes in its complex song, few if any call-like notes, and fewer of the high-pitched squeaky notes.  Given how common this bird is, and how many recordings of it are available, I believe that complex song is very rarely given by this species.

Philadelphia Vireo, Two Buttes Reservoir, Colorado (copyright Glenn Walbek)
Other species

Now we get to the fun part of the blog post – what do we still need?  I have been completely unable to find any recordings of the complex song of either Philadelphia Vireo (BNA describes a faster, more complex vocalization, but I am not convinced that this is actually complex song) or Black-whiskered Vireo (BNA describes a complex song, and I would bet money that it would sound like Red-eyed Vireo).  And even the other vireo species don’t have their complex songs very well documented.  How much more jumbled and call filled does the fast song of Red-eyed Vireo get?  How about Yellow-throated Vireo?  These kinds of questions will take someone being out in the field at the right time and the right place, and having a mic to ready to get it on tape!

Florida, Part 2: Keys to Piney Woods

Florida, Part 2: Keys to Piney Woods

In addition to all the immigrants that I targeted, I spent a good amount of time on some of the native species of Florida as well.  My target list here was much more refined, mostly hard to record species and rare vocalizations, and so my success rate was a bit lower.  But by the time my trip was over I still managed to get a nice collection of cool recordings, with a nice smattering of rare ones thrown in:

Mottled Duck is a surprisingly rarely recorded species.  Maybe that’s because it’s just a glorified Mallard – or maybe the opposite of glorified, being less colorful.  Or maybe it’s because it can be hard to find pure birds anymore in places most people bird.  Whatever the case, it was a major goal of mine to get some recordings from them, and I did from both hybrids and apparently pure birds:

Mottled Duck, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, copyright Andrew Spencer

It wasn’t all that long ago that I didn’t even know that Bachman’s Sparrow had a flight song.  As soon as I heard about it I had to go record it!  And it took a little effort, but eventually I found a pair of birds with an older juvenile late one evening that made all sorts of cool sounds, including the “flight” song a few times (but always while perched).  I also recorded a variety of calls from them, and their beautiful primary song.

Bachman's Sparrow, Three Lakes WMA, copyright Andrew Spencer

Not surprisingly, a number of the bird I was looking for were found on the Florida Keys.  High among these were White-crowned Pigeon and Black-whiskered Vireo (especially calls of both, which are rarely recorded), but I also recorded a few other fun species such as Antillean Nighthawk and Gray Kingbird.

Not really on the target list, but still a very cool (and unique) bird, I was able to get some good cuts of Limpkin near Miami while I was looking for Swamphens.  I was most surprised to learn that they actually make a very distinct winnowing sound while flying in an apparent display flight, and was very pleased to get a recording of it.

Limpkin, Pembroke Pines, copyright Andrew Spencer

One of the major highlights of my trip was recording in the Everglades.  I’ll admit, I got very few recordings there, BUT I did get one of my most wanted – Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.  And in addition to getting good recs I had spectacular views as well, a rarity for this endangered subspecies.

"Cape Sable" Seaside Sparrow, Everglades National Park, copyright Andrew Spencer

Florida, Part 1: Recording the Exotic

Florida, Part 1: Recording the Exotic

Purple Swamphen, Pembroke Pines, copyright Andrew Spencer

Exotics tend to have a bad rap among North American birders.  They’re either disparaged, or more often, ignored entirely.  This is a bit of a shame – they’re not “bad” birds, so to speak.  It isn’t their fault they’re introduced to places far from their home range.  But something about them makes them slightly distasteful to the majority of us.  And I’ll admit there have been times when I’ve fallen into the same boat.  I’ve even flatly refused to go up into the Ruby Mountains of Nevada to twitch Himalayan Snowcock.  But when I was offered the chance to go to Florida to get recordings of a number of target species, including exotics, I jumped at the chance.

Part of that was a chance to go to Florida, which offered the largest block of birds I haven’t recorded before.  But I’ll admit I was a bit curious to record exotics as well.  Almost nobody has spent effort on documenting their vocalizations in their introduced ranges, and it would be a challenge.

So what follows below will be the very first earbirding trip report, of my trip to Florida.

A goodly portion of my time was spent in the, ahem, noisy environs of Miami getting recordings introduced species.  Some of these will be very familiar to the ABA birder: Red-whiskered Bulbul, Budgerigar, or Common Myna, for example.  Others have received some press recently, but tend to fly more under the radar: Purple Swamphen, Mitred Parakeet, etc.  And some very few people ever even think about: Egyptian Goose, Indian Peafowl, even Red Junglefowl.

Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) have become quite common in southern Florida.  They can be surprisingly hard to hear, though – during the day they tend not to make too much noise, and they usually occur in very urban areas.  But a pre-dawn spent in a deserted parking lot in Kendall got me some good cuts of their cool songs:

Hill Mynas (Gracula religiosa) are the cooler, bigger cousins of Common Mynas.  Not only do they have looks going for them, they are probably the coolest sounding exotic in Florida.  Here are a couple of recs of a pair duetting at Matheson Hammock:

Hill Myna, Matheson Hammock, copyright Andrew Spencer

Recently getting some press for their remarkable expansion into the wetlands of South Florida are the big ugly cousins of Purple Gallinule, Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio).  In their native range they’re known as raucous, noisy birds, but in Florida they are surprisingly quiet.  I had to work on this species for a while before I found a pair that would vocalize, but when I did I was able to get a good representation of their repertoire:

Parrots feature prominently in the introduced avifauna of Florida.  Parrots are the perfect birds to record in noisy urban environments – they tend to be gregarious, fairly easy to find, and LOUD.  That is a huge advantage when having to deal with lots of background noise.  I was able to get recordings of a number of species, established and not so established.  Some of the species below are ABA countable (like White-winged Parakeet (Brotogeris versicolurus) and Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus)), but are actually fairly local and hard to find to nearly gone, while others that are not yet countable (like Mitred (Aratinga mitrata) and Nanday (Nandayus nenday) Parakeets) are much more well established:

Budgerigar, Hernando Beach, copyright Andrew Spencer

Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) is a surprisingly common introduced bird that most ABA birders haven’t even heard of.  Luckily they’re quite noisy:

Egyptian Goose, Key Biscayne, copyright Andrew Spencer

Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) has gotten a lot of attention due to the fact that it’s ABA countable.  But despite this, it is actually quite a bit harder to find than many non-countable exotics.  It is also rather difficult to get recordings of, and the best ones I managed were of a juvenile bird.  I did also manage to get one recording of call from an adult, but no song.

Red-whiskered Bulbul juvenile, Kendall, copyright Andrew Spencer

Stay tuned for part 2 of the trip report, which will follow in a few days…