In last week’s column I mentioned that April is a great month for bird watching, but it is also a great month for bird listening. With the start of breeding season, many of our birds greet the dawn sky with song (or at least some vocalization). In April you can hear this dawn chorus at the reasonable hour of 6:00 a.m. or so. In May and June, that dawn singing begins at 5 a.m., or even earlier.
I imagine we all would agree that everyone should experience the wildflowers of Mount Rainier at least once in their lives. I suggest that you make the same commitment to this dawn chorus. At least once, get dressed and go outdoors at dawn (again, April is the best month, and good weather is a must) and just listen. Even in the dullest urban neighborhood there will be birdsong, and if you journey to an area with a bit of wooded habitat, Watershed Park for example, or any area with some natural habitat, you will be stunned by what the birds have to say.
Many birds will keep singing sporadically through the morning hours, but it’s that magic hour or so around dawn that’s the best. And, really, you don’t have to know what birds these singers be. Just enjoy the multiple-voiced mixed chorus.
Of course, some will want to know which song belongs to which species. In the past this was a challenge that required persistence and having someone with you who was good at remembering birdsong. Now, with the web and cell phones, you can easily download a sight and sound identification app at http://www.allaboutbirds.org. This site includes all North American birds, not just the Pacific Northwest, but once you have an approximate identification you can track down vocalizations fairly easily.
Two birds were particularly impressive during my recent experience of a dawn chorus. One was the Pacific Wren (which used to be named Winter Wren). This is a very small chocolate-brown bird with a remarkable voice. His song (and usually bird singers are male) is a long series of burbling notes that seems to go on forever (really, probably 20 seconds), a long time for a little bird. These wrens are not particularly shy so you might be able to spot him singing from a low perch.
The second was the Varied Thrush. These birds are still on their wintering grounds (they breed primarily at higher elevations) but they are already practicing their dawn song. It’s a high-pitched long single-note whistle that, once you have heard it a few times, you will not forget. Varied Thrushes will remind you of robins wearing black masks.
Several respondents to last week’s column asked for advice about bird identification. First, I want to emphasize that enjoying birds does not require knowing their species. You can enjoy your neighbors without knowing all about them.
But for those who do want to know who’s who, the first thing I ask myself is not what, but where. Different birds hang out in different areas (the top of trees vs. clumps of bushes, for example) and getting good at bird identification means paying attention to habitat.
If you don’t already have one, you might also want to get a bird book to add to the website above. My favorite is “Birds of the Puget Sound Region,” written by a local author, Bob Morse and others. It is small enough to fit into your pocket and is organized by types of birds, so it will help you develop your sense of what the different bird species are like. This book is now out in a new edition, but a used copy of an earlier edition will suit most purposes, and also be cheaper.
George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at george@theJOLTnews.com
Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 14-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.