Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part Two

A whole week has passed?  Good grief.

Well, that’s about right for a mother, actually – we have one glorious, relaxing day in the sun every year . . . but then all of the other days gang up and come at us all at once.

No complaints here, though.  All the time I’ve spent not writing this week was spent outside enjoying amazing weather – blue skies, mountainsides deepening from spring green to emerald green, wild phlox blooming everywhere.

I spent most of the week in the garden, planting native plants and weeding non-native weeds.  (I got an excellent new weeding tool from my folks.  Have I mentioned it yet?  It is awesome!)  By the way, “I only weed the non-natives” is an outstanding excuse for only doing half the weeding a perfectionist gardener might do.  Totally believable.

But I digress.  So now I shall progress by regressing to last Sunday.

I ended my last post as afternoon turned slowly to evening, sitting on the deck with my mother- and father-in-law, our bellies full (the men cooked!) and glasses of cold white wine in hand.  The birds were singing, the light was golden, and all was well with the whole world.  Until, that is, I opened my big, fat mouth about the nearby Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythphthalmus) not singing its song properly.

My in-laws have a great look that crosses their faces (briefly, bless them) when I say things like this; it’s somewhere between “Wow, what amazing knowledge you have!” and “Good lord, what is the crazy nature lady talking about now?!”

The best time to see rufous-sided towhees is in the spring; they live and hide in the underbrush of the forest, but in spring they hop up to higher branches to better broadcast their mating song.  Photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

The best time to see Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythryphthalmus) is in the spring; they live and hide in the underbrush of the forest, but in spring they hop up to higher branches to better broadcast their mating song. Photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

So I explained, thoroughly sanely, I might add, that the song of the Eastern towhee is “Drink your te-e-e-e-a, sweeeet!” but that the towhees around south Main Street in Blacksburg and, apparently, at this end of Claytor Lake, refuse to sing the  “sweeeet” part.  (Are they on diets?  Are they from the north?  What’s wrong with sweet tea, you stubborn birds?!)

Again, showing only momentarily the “Nope, she’s gone thoroughly nuts” face, my in-laws inquired about what other bird calls I might know.

Here’s the part where I confess that I am only a novice bird watcher and a thoroughly amateur bird listener, but I am learning – thanks mostly to a wonderful book that my own folks bought for my daughter when she was young, Bird Calls by Frank Gallo and Lori Lohstoeter, that I now use often with other kiddos when I teach at the nature center.  It’s an incredibly well done picture and information book, but the best parts are the buttons you can push to hear the songs of each bird that’s been illustrated plus mnemonic phrases to help you remember them.

Here are the bird calls I can say that, thanks to that book and a lot of other research, I feel I know, along with links to the Cornell Ornithology All About Birds website pages where you can actually listen to the calls described.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) by Dan Pacamo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) by Dan Pacamo via Wikimedia Commons.

Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

Why not start with my favorite, right?  When I was born my mother nicknamed me “Dee” and so this bird has been calling my name all my life.  It’s standard call sounds to me like “Chick-a-da deedeedeedee”  See what you think by scrolling down to “Calls” on this webpage:  Carolina chickadee sounds.  Did you remember to scroll down?  I hope so, because the mating song of the chickadee (the first sound file on the page) reveals my heartbreak:  although I’ve loved the chickadee best for decades now, in the spring he stops calling for me.  The chickadee gets a seasonal madness and suddenly falls in love and calls for some woman named Phoebe:  “Fee-beee Fee-bay.”  Homewrecker.

Note the variety of beautiful grays on this bird:  from warm, brownish grays to cool, almost blue grays.  Looking at these doves really expands the meaning of the term "dove gray".  Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Note the variety of beautiful grays on this mourning dove (Zenaida macroura): from warm, brownish grays to cool, almost blue grays. Looking at these doves really expands the meaning of the term “dove gray”. Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning Dove

Nope, it’s not an owl singing during the day, but the gentle coo of the ubiquitous mourning dove (Zenaida macroura).  The mnemonic I use for this one is really just the sound of the call itself “Ooo, OO OO, ooo ooo ooo,” one rising coo at the start, then two loud coos followed by three softer coos.  It sounds like someone crying from deep emotional or physical pain but, rest assured, these birds are healthy and doing just fine.  I guess their females are just attracted to males that need healing?  I know women like that.  In my opinion, though, the far cooler sound made by morning doves is the loud flappy/whistley noise their wings make when they take off in a hurry (like every time I walk past my bird bath).  It’s on that same web page, have a listen.  The experts think it helps to warn other members of their flock and/or startle predators.  I want to know what it is about the wing that allows it to make that sound, but that’s research for another day.

Cardinal

Here we see a mated pair of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), female on the left and male on the right, at a feeder.  Another great photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Here we see a mated pair of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), female on the left and male on the right, at a feeder. Another great photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are the poster-bird for spring singing.  The impossibly red males flaunt their feathers and their voices, perching high in trees and singing loudly either “Cheer cheer cheer cheer” or “bir-Dee, bir-Dee, bir-Dee.”  (Whoa, maybe I should give them a little love for calling my name, too.)  In the first, the cheer starts on a high note and slurs down to a lower note.  In the latter, the “bir” note is a bit lower and the “Dee” note is higher and louder.  Listen to both songs here.  However, as I am learning, it’s important to get to know the voice of a particular species of bird, rather than just one song.  Ornithologists have recorded over 16 different songs and calls for the cardinal alone and, unlike most species, the female cardinal sings, too.  She may be plain compared to the male (her colors blend in to camouflage the nest she sits on, whereas the male’s plumage is meant to show off to win her heart) but she sings just as sweetly!

It still baffles me that these are so often called "robin redbreast" when their chests and bellies are so obviously orange, not red.  This photograph is mine, I took it last spring in Heritage Park.

It still baffles me that these are so often called “robin redbreast” when their chests and bellies are so obviously orange, not red. This photograph is mine, I took it last spring in Heritage Park.

Robin

The American Robin’s (Turdus migratorius) song is as clear and ringing as the cardinal’s, but is even more musical, with many different notes and trills.  The mnemonic for the robin’s song are the words “cheerily” and “cheer up” repeated and interspersed with one another.  For my money, the cheerilies are a little tough to tell from the cheer ups, so I say remember it in any order you like.  Besides, Mother Nature likes to mess with us, so whatever pattern you remember your cheerily cheer ups, just when you think you’ve finally got it down, She’ll throw a robin with a whole different pattern at you.  Listen to the robins here and tell me which order you think they’re putting their words in.  Ha!

PS – What’s up with that scientific name?  If any bird is going to get tagged with “migrating turd” it should be Canada Geese, judging by the guano bombs each flock drops on our cars in spring and fall!

White-throated Sparrow

Check out the super white throat on this white-throated sparrow.  The names we give animals are more often descriptive than creative, but if you get bored there's nothing wrong with calling them Bob or Sally for short.  The photograph is another great one from Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out the super white throat on this white-throated sparrow. The names we give animals are more often descriptive than creative, but if you get bored there’s nothing wrong with calling them Bob or Sally for short. The photograph is another great one from Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

My mother taught me this one, and well she should, her maiden name is Peabody and that’s just what the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) whistles in his highest pitch: “Ooold man  Peab’dy Peab’dy Peab’dy” with the last Peab’dy getting louder and rising up like a sentence that ends with a question mark paired with an exclamation point.  (FYI, that punctuation is called an interrobang – one of my favorite words ever.)  As if the bird is shocked at whatever Old Man Peabody has done.  Perhaps the female birds fly in to get the gossip on whatever that is, then just decide to stay and make a nest and raise a few babies.  For the record, as far as I can tell, my grandfather Peabody was a law abiding man and far too respectable to be the subject of gossip but, then again, I don’t speak bird, so I don’t really know.  Listen to their song here, but be aware that these birds don’t stick to the mnemonic script as well as the ones in Blacksburg do.

Carolina Wren

"Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger" sings this spunky little Carolina wren (Thyrothorus ludovicianus), captured and shared by Cheep Shot via Wikimedia Commons.

“Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sings this spunky little Carolina wren (Thyrothorus ludovicianus), captured and shared by Cheep Shot via Wikimedia Commons.

When we were younger, my older brother asked my mother about the cheeseburger bird in our back yard.  My mother, momentarily perplexed (she had no facial expression for “Is he crazy?” like my in-laws do; she already knew her children were certifiable), asked “Cheeseburger bird?”  My brother replied, yeah, the bird that sings “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger cheeseburger.”  And because of that, in my mind, the Carolina wren’s (Thyrothorus ludovicianus) song mnemonic will always and forever be a thrice-repeated “cheeseburger”, despite the fact that ornithologists usually describe it as “teakettle” or “Germany.”  Bah!  My brother’s is more American anyway.  Listen for yourself and decide if they’re singing for a classic American meal, a British standard, or the 2014 FIFA World Cup champions.

Tufted Titmouse

Perhaps he's pausing to look for Peter?  I know this much:  if I'm looking for a great bird photo, I'll probably find it the way I got this one, by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps he’s pausing to look for Peter?
I know this much: if I’m looking for a great bird photo, I’ll probably find it the way I got this one, by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

For a little bird, the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) has a big voice.  He uses it to call for Peter.  The titmouse’s song is a phrase made up of repeated “PE-ter”s, sometimes as few as three, sometimes many more; listen here.  I don’t know who this Peter is, but I hope he’s flattered by the attention of this handsome little bird.

Oh!  Big idea!  Maybe I can find Peter and hook him up with Phoebe . . .

Maybe my in-laws are right about the crazy creeping in.

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2 thoughts on “Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part Two

  1. . . . that period of spring, just past here in NoVA, when the birds are already giddy but the trees are still bare. How wonderful that the two coincide–and we have an opportunity to SEE the songster in action. I don’t think there is a more successful way of learning bird tune identification than to see the song being sung. Your robin photo, BTW, is excellent. The lighting is perfect! You even managed to catch the eyelight, the sign, I’ve read, of excellent animal camerawork. The Wikimedia pics are very good, too–and I love having them to look at while I am learning–but I giggle to see the wren, for his tail doesn’t look at all unusual. Wren species, of course, are known for their tails’ pointing upward. Most of the time. Wouldn’t life be a hoot if facts were more constant!

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  2. I had the same thought about the wren picture, but couldn’t pass up the open, singing beak!

    Am now remembering that I forgot to include bobwhite and killdeer, who both sing their own names. I’ll include them the next time I go hiking and hear them or, at the very least, next spring. I wonder what new songs I’ll know next spring? 🙂

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