For the Birds: Nature’s morning chorus

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

It was about an hour before sunrise and it was decision time: try to go back to sleep for a few hours or get up and watch the sunrise in the woods somewhere.

Nine times out of ten, going back to sleep wins out and I wake up with the sun fairly high in the sky. This time was different. A few robins were already awake and singing, and I felt as if trying to sleep would be fruitless. I got up, made a cup of coffee and drove to the nearest park.

It was a good call. Nothing too out of the ordinary happened, but being in the woods when the natural world wakes up is always something memorable. In my younger years (not that long ago, mind you), I would do this quite frequently. Lately, not so much.

The sky was already brightening by the time I hit the trail. It was light enough that I didn’t need a flashlight to see where I was going, but it was dark enough that taking a photograph would yield a blurry, indiscernible image. Not that there was much to see anyway.

But there was plenty to hear. Robins, perhaps cousins of those that had awakened me about half an hour earlier, were the dominant sound. “Cheerily, cheerily, cheer up, cheer up,” over and over from all directions in the pre-dawn woods.

Plenty of other birds (and frogs and insects) joined the chorus, but the robins dominated. Most noticeable, and delightful, were the sounds that weren’t being heard: no airplanes overhead, no trucks downshifting from the highway miles away, no leaf blowers, no lawn mowers, no chainsaws. Just nature. It was cool and calm. Later it would be hot and hectic. But not just yet.

The robins had plenty of company in the morning chorus. I heard the Space Invaders-like song of the veery as well as wood thrushes, mourning doves, titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, song sparrows, eastern wood pewees, red-winged blackbirds and many other bird songs I could not identify. Bullfrogs added a deep and interesting texture to the chorus.

I walked down a narrow path lined with ferns on either side. The lush ferns stretched far into the woods in all directions. I walked past a pond on my right. Fog rose from the water and man-made wood duck boxes were placed strategically around the edges. Grackles, ever ubiquitous, flew among the cattails.

My face and legs broke through hundreds of spider webs and mosquitoes feasted on the back of my neck. A great blue heron uttered its croaking sound as it flew from a nearby marsh and landed in a tall snag towering over the steaming pond. A friend of mine once said the great blue heron’s “song” reminded him of a dying goat. It’s not that far off.

I noticed a snapping turtle between the trail and the water. Years ago, I would have thought it was a rock, but my older, wiser self knew immediately it was a snapper. I pulled out my phone, took a few steps closer, bent low and grabbed a few photos. It was a willing subject.

Eventually, the natural sounds waned and the unnatural ones took over. The distant humming of the highway reminded me that I, too, had responsibilities to tend to. I reluctantly retreated back to the car and returned home. It was still before 7 o’clock in the morning when I got back. I felt as if I had experienced an entire day already. I never did miss those couple hours of sleep.

Photo by Chris Bosak A snapping turtle at a pond’s edge in New England, spring 2021.

For the Birds: Robins first at it in the morning

Photo by Chris Bosak An American robin perches in a tree in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

Late spring/early summer is a great time to sleep outdoors. I’m lucky enough to have a porch that is screened from floor to ceiling on three sides. It’s like sleeping outdoors with the comforts of home.
There’s usually not a lot to see as the woods encroach pretty closely on the porch. There wouldn’t be much to see in the dark anyway, of course. But I can hear everything.
I typically sleep through the night but am occasionally jarred awake by a barred owl hooting or opossum trying to get into the compost pile. After years of breaches, I finally have the compost properly secured.
The dawn chorus usually wakes me up. I listen to it for about half an hour and then fall back asleep.
The other morning, it started at 4:21 with a lone robin singing in the nearby woods. An eastern wood pewee soon chimed in with its high-pitched song as if asking the robin to please be quiet. By 4:30, other robins joined in and it was game on.
A tufted titmouse sang its “peter-peter-peter” song from a nearby branch. Titmice are small birds with a big voice. If the robin hadn’t awoken me at 4:21, the titmouse certainly would have.
A cardinal sang in the distance and I heard a turkey gobbling from deep in the woods. I’ve seen turkeys in my yard twice in all the time I’ve lived here so I was surprised to hear them join the fray that morning.
A hermit thrush sang its flute-like song and I recalled the nice poem that a reader had written and sent me last week. Thrushes certainly do have interesting and beautiful songs.
I also heard a song I didn’t recognize. It sounded somewhat like a black-billed cuckoo, but I’m sure it wasn’t that. It’s always nice to know there is more to learn.
Then the woodpeckers started tapping on their territorial branches. They choose branches, or other objects such as houses or chimney flashing, that are loud and reverberate. A yellow-bellied sapsucker favors a dead branch in my side yard and a pileated woodpecker uses one in my backyard. Thankfully, the tappings I heard that morning were coming from deeper in the woods.
Many birders can determine a species of woodpecker by the cadence of its tapping. I was amazed the first time I had seen that and figured I’d never reach that level of expertise. After studying the sapsucker and pileated woodpecker up close, I’m starting to get the hang of it.
Also significant was what I didn’t hear. No leaf blowers, lawn mowers, weedwackers, chainsaws or machinery of any kind. Not even any cars or trucks. These sounds have become so pervasive in everyday life they become like background noise.
But at this time of day, only the birds could be heard. That thought pleased me greatly and I dozed back off to sleep.

Photo by Chris Bosak An American robin family visits a feeder in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.