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The sounds of nesting birds

Scarlet Tanager
Mark Faherty
Scarlet Tanager

I am officially calling it – spring migration is over. With migrating birds, as with people, there are always stragglers and wanderers who keep things interesting, but for all intents and purposes, it’s now simply breeding season. Lucky for us, over three hundred cumulative bird species have been recorded in June around here. So it seemed like a good time to get acquainted with some of our breeding birds, and in particular their sounds, this being radio and all.

First, let’s take a hike in some relatively mature woods – some place like Nickerson State Park or West Barnstable Conservation Area. Among the taller oaks and pines, listen for the delightful, undulating whistle of one of our latest arriving songbirds, the Eastern Wood-Pewee. If you watch a lot of nature documentaries, you may notice that this pewee recording is often inserted into the background, even in totally inappropriate places like treeless prairies.

You wouldn’t soon forget seeing our next forest bird, the stunning Scarlet Tanager, whose buzzy song sounds to me like a robin with a hangover. But my favorite is this next one, a plainish brown bird with a haunting and ethereal song often heard towards dusk in pine barrens – the Hermit Thrush. As you listen for these less common birds in the pine-oak woods, you’ll be trying to hear them through the constant, trilling din of the most common woodland songbird here, the Pine Warbler.

In wet and shrubby woods and wetlands, listen for two of our other most common but maybe not so well known breeding birds: first, the lazy and repetitive song of the Common Yellowthroat. Then the more urgent, caffeinated song of the Yellow Warbler, a species happy with even the most invasive-choked thickets.

Next, let’s head out to some of the habitats we’re better known for, the beaches and marshes that bring all the tourists, and take a listen to some of the breeding birds there. Did you hear that? I think I hear the sound of a beach being closed to vehicles! It’s the Piping Plover, every town beach manager’s favorite bird. Less well known, but much louder, is this next bird: the Willet. These lanky saltmarsh sandpipers start out loud and then get even louder when they have chicks to protect, rendering them hard to miss on your marsh-side walk. If you prefer something in a cryptic and rare marsh dweller to listen for, I give you the unmusical stylings of the Clapper Rail – these secretive and typically more southern marsh birds have been heard in scattered saltmarshes between Eastham and Mashpee in the last week.

If you need help figuring out all the breeding bird sounds around you, and you’ve been under a rock long enough that you haven’t heard about it, you need Cornell’s Merlin App with Sound ID – just hold it up and it identifies the bird sounds around you with stunning, though imperfect accuracy. I noticed an exponential increase in Merlin users this spring, so word has gotten out about this fun learning tool for the nature enthusiast.

If you miss migration, fear not – southbound shorebirds are just a month away, and post-breeding movements of songbirds start shortly after that. But for now, I recommend that you just settle in and enjoy the music of our breeding birds during this relatively relaxing month of June. Because come July the migrants, and the tourists, return.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.