The Local Bird Soundscape is Changing

May 2, 2018

Eastern Towhee
Credit Mark Faherty

With the welcome arrival of May and a little warm weather, bird migration should finally be kicking into high gear. And with that comes a change in our local soundscapes as locally nesting songbirds arrive and the males immediately get down to defending their territories.

Emblematic of our oak-y Cape Cod woodlands, the Eastern Towhee is a familiar species in backyards and conservation areas alike. These short distance migrants winter in the southeastern US and return to us in mid to late April. Local breeding males slip in overnight and immediately start singing on territory, filling the air with their well-known entreaties to “drink your tea”, as well as their oft-heard “chewink” call notes.

Gray Catbirds have been slow to arrive – I’ve only heard one so far - but with the warm air bringing us these nice mid-week days I would expect a lot more to be arriving. Listen for their delightful rambling song from wet thickets or from your front rhododendron, and don’t forget their catlike meowing call.

Catbirds are close cousins of mockingbirds, but they rarely mimic other species like mockingbirds do. But if you listen closely, you may note certain distinctive phrases used by your backyard catbird and can use that to identify returning individuals each year. My backyard catbird male has such a distinctive phrase, so I know that either he is returning year after year, although it’s actually possible he is teaching his offspring his favorite song phrases and they are taking over the territory.

A few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been spotted, though overall they have been slow to come back this year. But this is the week to hang your feeders if you haven’t. You might know the hum of their wings, but do you know the sounds of a displaying male? Males can often be seen courting an invisible female sitting motionless in a shrub, while he climbs and dives repeatedly, transcribing a capital “J”. Listen for three distinct sounds in this clip – wing hum, fast chip notes, and loud chirps.

On the ocean and bay, this is the best time to listen for the mournful whistles of migrant flocks of Black Scoters, at least when a lull in the white noise of wind and surf allows us to hear them. These locally wintering sea ducks are passing through over the next few weeks on their way to subarctic breeding grounds – look for tight flocks of all-black ducks on saltwater. Their plaintive, minor-key calls always make me think they are sad to be leaving.

Lastly, I expect everyone’s favorite neighborhood songbird, the Baltimore Oriole, to arrive en masse this week. Who doesn’t love their happy whistled song. I’m going to end on a male oriole who seems to be duetting with a cardinal – can you tell who is who?