Audio & Vireo: How to identify the songs of the Midwest's treetop dwellers

Michigan trip provides case study in vireo song identification

Where is “Up North” in Michigan? The question’s been debated extensively by Michiganders and many a Midwesterner.

In late June, I found myself near tiny Lake George, Mich., for a fishing trip with a couple of old friends. Lake George is about halfway up the mitten, aka the Lower Peninsula. It’s well north of some of the traditional gateways to Up North, like Grand Rapids and Saginaw. The ecosystem feels more northern: cooler temperatures, birch- and aspen-laden forests, hilly terrain and glacier-carved lakes. Even the most judicious Up Norther would have to say this area has more in common with Traverse City than, say, New Buffalo.

In the eBird parlance, birding wasn’t my primary purpose on this trip. And I’d sort of written off seeing or hearing any breeding birds different from what we have in Chicago. Yes, this is Up North, but it’s not quite the boreal forest and muskeg of the Upper Peninsula.

As the first day went on, on one lake, I realized I was hearing a Yellow-throated Vireo call. A sort of wheezy, burry call that was repeated. I was already hearing plenty of Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, our most common vireos. No surprise there. Then I became certain I heard a Blue-headed Vireo the next day, too. Coming in with low expectations, these were neat discoveries.

When I got back from Michigan, I decided to have a chat with Isoo O’Brien about vireos and bird songs. Isoo is helping me out as an intern with Turnstone Strategies this summer before he heads off to Kenyon College. He also set the record for a Cook County big year with 288 species in 2020. You may recall he wrote about the experience for TWiB a couple weeks back. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

BD: So this was kind of fun as the days unfolded, and I kept finding vireo species.

IO: Blue-headed I have the least experience with, that’s the one that doesn’t breed here. When I have heard it sing it is more like Yellow-throated.

BD: I was in Graceland Cemetery last year and heard a Yellow-throated that only sang one note. If I hadn’t been able to see it, I would have written it off as an odd robin or wheezy starling.

IO: This spring I’d hear an alternate Yellow-throated and get an eye on it to see if it was a Blue-headed just in case. [Blue-headeds] don’t sing as much as the other ones in migration.

BD: Wait, so Yellow-throateds breed around here? How’d I miss this?

IO: Yellow-throateds prefer higher quality forest. Red-eyed it seems are a lot more generalized. Yellow-throateds like the dense quality forest in the Palos. I think of it as an indicator species, with other uncommon breeding species like Acadian Flycatcher and Pileated Woodpecker.

IO: Red-eyed Vireo is your typical neighborhood bird. Yellow-throated I’d be very surprised to find in urban areas.

BD: When I think of the Blue-headed song, I think of them as slow motion Red-eyed Vireos. There’s a full rest between their little verses. They take their time.

BD: What do you think of paraphrasing or mnemonic devices as a way to learn bird songs? Blue-headed has that more deliberate hear me, see me, here I am. I’ve always found the Warbling Vireo mnemonic useful: if I see you, I will seize you and I’ll squeeze you till you squirt!

IO: It’s definitely helpful. But the best way to learn a bird song is to see the bird and hear the bird, too.

BD: You have to understand your robins, cardinals and starlings before you get into the more serious stuff.

IO: Take the Alder Flycatcher. It says free beer. But there’s also a sub-song of a robin that you could manipulate into what the flycatcher’s saying.

BD: You’re most likely not going to identify a bird for the first time by sound unless it’s something really unique like a Whip-poor-will.

IO: Two birds that I tend to think of with mnemonics are Phoebe and Pewee. Phoebe can have a song that’s similar in cadence to Pewee. That’s what I’m pointing to when I say matching the song to the sight.

BD: One that I was struggling with all last spring was Chestnut-sided Warbler versus Yellow Warbler.

IO: I can get a feel for which is which. If I hear a clear Yellow it’s very distinctive. If it’s an alternate [song] then I need to get a look at this bird. Warblers all sound very similar. Unless you hear that main song, it’s not going to work.

BD: What about Cerulean Warbler versus Northern Parula? This is one I’ve struggled with. Parula has an alternate song that’s almost identical to Cerulean. This is important since Cerulean are a state threatened species.

IO: Those are hard and something I can find tricky for a long time. I would say American Redstart, that’s probably the most variable warbler for songs. It’s feeling out the atmosphere and getting to a place where I can piece that puzzle together in the field.

Ironically, a week or two after this, Isoo and I were birding in Chicago’s Jackson Park leading a small group. I thought I heard an Indigo Bunting and declared it such with confidence. Then Isoo says, “That’s a Yellow Warbler.” He said this without getting a look, and it certainly was an alternate call for a Yellow that resembled the couplets I associate with buntings. He was right. No one is infallible in birding. And now I wonder about all the buntings I’ve been hearing this summer.

When I’m in the field, I’m using my ears as much or even more than my eyes. Here are my tips for getting into bird songs:

  • Take a moment or moments while on a bird walk to simply listen. Test yourself to see how many bird songs you can identify. If you hear an unfamiliar song, look for the bird until you confirm an ID.

  • Do your research. Browse key species on All About Birds and listen to their songs. Take it up a notch by visiting Xeno Canto for more obscure songs and greater variety.

  • Try out the Merlin app. The Sound ID function listens to birds around you and shows real-time suggestions for who’s singing.

  • Record what you’re hearing. Smartphones have high-quality recording capability via the Voice Memo function. This may come in handy if you need to refer back to the song later.

Presence of Limpkin leads to scramble for canoes

A second state record of Limpkin, a tropical wetland bird of the Americas, led to a mad scramble for canoe rentals at Chain O Lakes State Park this month. The heron-sized bird could only be seen by boat, meaning most anyone searching for it would need to rent a watercraft at the park. The first Limpkin record for Illinois came just two years ago near downstate Olney. It appears the species is expanding its range from its U.S. stronghold of Florida.

Tickets for “Monty and Rose 2: The World of Monty and Rose”

Join us for the premiere of my second documentary about Monty and Rose! This is a new film, a new story line with new characters and a lot of new footage of our favorite plovers! Those featured in the hour-long film include “Plover Mother” Tamima Itani of Illinois Ornithological Society, American Birding Association's Greg Neise, actor/artist Tony Fitzpatrick, Chicago Tribune reporter Morgan Greene, Chicago Ornithological Society President Edward Warden, Montrose Dunes Site Steward Leslie Borns, longtime Chicago birder and guide Geoff Williamson and many more. Buy tickets for the Sept. 4 and Sept. 6 showings by clicking here.

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TWiB Notes

Back in April, I happened to be the first person to record a Wild Turkey at LaBagh Woods on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Block Club Chicago’s Ariel Parrella ended up writing a story about it for the online news publication; it happened to be her first story while on the outlet’s fulltime staff. She talked about the turkey and about birding on Block Club’s podcast “It’s All Good” last week. Listen to the conversation at about the 7:45 mark…..The Birding Co-op is a grassroots organization that promotes inclusivity in the global birding community. The organization has started its first-ever optics drive to support birders in El Salvador and Uganda……The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology has begun a search for its first-ever Executive Director…..The Forest Preserves of Cook County has a virtual event coming up, “Ask a Bird Nerd,” on Aug. 17 at 1 p.m.  

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