To beat the summer heat birders should learn the songs
Summer heat, heavy foliage adds to birding difficulty; knowing the songs helps
Contrary to a widespread misconception, the summer months are NOT the best time for birding in Northeast Ohio.
Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of desirable species to see during the hot and humid span of late June, July and August. The conditions just require birders to make a few adjustments in their approach, and to work a little harder to locate and spot the birds.
|Orchard oriole, female/Karen Lakus|
Fortunately, the majority of summer birds are in the process of finding mates, defending territory, nesting and raising young, which inspires the males to sing. So it helps to know your songs.
Summer trees and shrubs are lush with foliage, providing sources of food and cover for the birds, but making sightings especially difficult for birders. Knowing the songs is beneficial in this pursuit.
All of these factors came into play during a few recent bird walks through some of the best local habitats. At each of the sites, the only realistic opportunities to see the most popular target birds was to hear them first.
At the Station Road trailhead in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Karen Lakus and I patiently searched the canopies of towering sycamores from where we heard the songs of two reliable nesters, the yellow-throated and cerulean warblers. We succeeded in locking these tiny songbirds in our binoculars, but likely would have failed without first identifying their songs.
|Bald eagles/Karen Lakus|
A third common nester, the indigo bunting, posed less of a challenge. We heard and saw more than a dozen, including one brilliant blue male at eye level. Typically, the buntings are adept at singing while remaining hidden in lush canopy foliage. Veteran birders describe the song as “What, what! Where, where? See it, see it!”
We were less fortunate in our attempts to glass a singing prothonotary warbler, a golden resident of the Pinery Narrows swamp, where access has been shut off in deference to the bald eagles nesting there. But we were lucky to be watching the nest from across the Cuyahoga River when one of the adult eagles arrived at the nest with a fish, which the two fledglings immediately devoured.
Other sightings in the park included white-eyed, red-eyed and warbling vireos, great crested and Acadian flycatchers, Easter wood-pewee, blue-gray gnatcatchers, wood thrush, and common yellowthroats – most with the aid of hearing them first.
An exception to the rule was a female orchard oriole that posed atop a small tree gleaning insects from the newly emerged leaves without making a sound.
|Snapping turtle/Karen Lakus|
Later in the week, I joined Cleveland Metroparks naturalist Jake Kudrna on a group bird walk at the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, an 88-acre manmade haven that hosts dozens of nesting yellow warblers.
Baltimore orioles are also common there, and we spotted a pair of orchard orioles. Other finds included willow flycatchers, best distinguished from the similar Acadian flycatcher by its song. Willows sound like “fitz-pew!” Acadians like “peet-sa!”
On a solo walk at the Bath Nature Preserve, a broad expanse of grass there provided close encounters with nesting bobolinks and Henslow’s sparrows, an uncommon prairie species usually located by its song, often described as a weak hiccup, “tsleep.”
The scarlet tanagers in the woodlands produce a song sometimes described as sounding like a hoarse robin. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, on the other hand, have a sweeter song similar to a robin that has taken singing lessons.
|Widow skimmer dragonfly/Karen Lakus|
A small bird flitting among the lower branches skirting a swamp was singing a mnemonic similar to “please, please, please to meetcha!” It was a chestnut-sided warbler, an unexpected surprise in Northeast Ohio during the summer.
A pair of trumpeter swans are causing excitement at the wetlands, where they are raising two cignets.
Later next month, birders will encounter new challenges in Northeast Ohio as the first wave of migrating shorebirds arrive from their Arctic nesting grounds while on their journey to South America. Shorebirds seldom sing, but they pose new problems for birders attempting to figure out their similar plumages. We’ll save that season for a later column.