[Tweeters] birdsong: variability and mystery (long)

Paul Hicks phicks at accessgrace.org
Wed Jul 5 20:48:28 PDT 2006

This post doesn't pose a "question" with an "answer" per se. I'm more
telling stories that all birders can relate to who rely heavily on
vocalizations for ID clues. This past season I have been struck with what we
all know: bird songs can vary wildly. Especially the farther from familiar
surroundings we venture.
My most recent surprise encounter was a Vesper Sparrow on Huntzinger Rd. I
watched as its mouth opened and emitted a Grasshopper Sparrow song. Well,
more like a Grasshopper Sparrow than a Vesper! I kid you not. The kicker was
it gave the "alternate" jumble-song like a Grasshopper as well!!
I've had Yellowthroat (only blocks from home, and just enough out of
"normal" habitat to) pass for MacGillavray's--not a huge surprise, I
suppose. I've heard Blackpoll sing like Cape May and Bay-breasted like
Blackpoll. (Not a huge surprise either, I suppose, especially given I am
reliant on eastern bird tapes to provide the "prototype.") At Wenas recently
an "Audubon's" Warbler was delivering a head-scratcher of a repertoire. The
Clay-colored Sparrow near home didn't exactly match any tape in my
possession, either. I had to make sure it wasn't some oddball junco
song--which has thrown me for a loop more than once.
At Hartwick Pines St Forest near Grayling, Michigan, I reported to the staff
birder a song (3 birds) that didn't match any of the tapes. She checked it
out and was also stumped--so it wasn't just this out-of-stater. (I suspect
Blackburnian Warbler, but quite different from the birds singing in a
different location even in the same park.) Nearby I spent 40 minutes trying
to solve another mystery song. Turned out, as suspected, a Pine Warbler--but
it sounded more like a Varied Thrush/Blue-winged cross. Very weird to the
unsuspecting and hopeful-of-something-really-exotic.
So I guess the best remedy for "hearing things" (like Yellow-billed Cuckoo
or Scarlet Tanager at Wenas--no way!) is to acquire the tried and true
visual. Or else live with the mystery.
Good birding!
--Paul Hicks
Tenino, s. Thurston Co
phicks AT accessgrace.org

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