For the Birds: Persistence pays off in birdwatching

Photo by Chris Bosak A Chipping Sparrow raises its crest while standing on a log in Danbury, Conn., summer2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Chipping Sparrow raises its crest while standing on a log in Danbury, Conn., summer2016.

I wasn’t about to let this one slip away.

I’ve said that to myself plenty of times over the years and most of the time it does, indeed, slip away. But not this time.

Persistence is often necessary when trying to nail down a bird’s identity. The problem is this: The bird doesn’t know this and often (usually?) flies away before you can study it long enough to get that ID.

This latest bird was driving me crazy. It sang loud and clear from the depths of the woods. The song appeared to be an endless series of robin-like phrases sung over and over. Despite the constant notes, I couldn’t find the bird in the treetops.

My first thoughts were that the bird was either a Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak or scarlet tanager. I was thinking big in terms of color apparently. I looked in the tree tops, but saw nothing.

Eventually, I eliminated those birds from consideration because the song was too constant. The aforementioned birds take at least a little break between repeating their respective songs.

My next thought was a gray catbird as the song had a bit of a squeakiness to it. It wasn’t the right habitat for catbirds, however, as the scene was heavily wooded.

I recorded the song in case the bird decided to fly away, leaving me frustrated without a positive ID. I’ve tried that before, however, and it rarely seems to work. Just like birds don’t always resemble their field guide photos or drawings, their songs don’t always perfectly match the recordings on digital field guides.

I was already suffering from ‘warbler neck’ from looking up in the treetops, so I decided to take a risky step. Instead of looking at the trees from an angle and from a short distance away, I walked right underneath the song. Usually that’s a sure fire way to get the bird to take off deeper into the woods, but this guy kept on singing.

Finally, I saw movement. It came from branches much lower than I was inspecting previously. I confirmed immediately my bird was not an oriole, grosbeak or tanager. From the quick glimpse I managed, I noticed it was small and rather drab.

The bird hopped to a nearby branch and, even though it was still mostly hidden from view by the leaves, I knew it was a vireo. But which one? Only a few vireo species made sense, so I consulted the Audubon birding app on my phone.

The description of the red-eyed vireo song started off: “A series of short, musical, robin-like phrases endlessly repeated.”

That’s it. No doubt about it. The views I did get of the bird confirmed it.

I moved along my walk satisfied with the positive identification. Mostly, though, I was happy I didn’t have to deal with the frustration of not knowing what it was. I’ve felt that plenty of times over the years.

I used to be confounded by chipping sparrows all the time. They sing frequently during late May/early June and are so small and drab it is often difficult to find them. Often, when you do eventually spot them, you feel silly because they are singing from a rather obvious perch and you wonder how you missed it.

As with many things in life, persistence often pays off in birdwatching. Also, as in life, the more difficult the task, the more satisfying it is to find success.

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