April 2015

Vol. 43, No. 2

Musings from the Blind Birder: Song of Spring

Martha Steele

It is early March and time to head to Rock Meadow in Belmont as the sun sets. The fields are a patchwork of snow and frozen grass. We park our car and start walking out into the meadow, Bob with his eyes to the sky and me with my ears ready to hear the bird that to me signals the coming avalanche of spring bird song. As light fades from the sky, we suddenly hear peent! off to our left.


Such is my reaction to my first American Woodcock of the receding winter. We cannot tear ourselves away, following any flight song or calls we hear across the fields. We eventually call it a night and head home, looking forward to repeating this experience multiple times over the coming weeks.

It probably goes without saying that spring migration is the most exciting and anticipated time of year for the majority of birders in the Northeast. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to see up to 35 or more species of warblers in breeding plumage pass through during spring migration. We are ecstatic over fallout days where birds are everywhere, starting with our backyards. We want to be in 100 places at the same time and see every bird that passes through. Mount Auburn Cemetery, Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, the Beech Forest Trail on Cape Cod, October Mountain State Forest in western Massachusetts, and other hot spots take on a whole new façade during spring migration, morphing from quiet and serene places to walk and contemplate into a birder’s version of Times Square, with our returning avian friends lighting up our days with their brilliant colors.

The excitement of the spring is even more striking on the heels of winter birding. What I find most challenging about the winter and fall seasons is identifying birds based on their calls and chip notes, as full song is rarely heard. I marvel at those, such as Bob, who know the bird that just gave that barely audible, short, and single chip note.

“See how sharp that is? It is really different from any other bird.”

Yeah, right. Easy as pie.

Still, winter has its own treasures, its own leisurely rhythm, and birds typically not present at any other time of the year, such as Snow Buntings, boreal species—Snowy Owl, Bohemian Waxwing, Pine Grosbeak, crossbills—and the myriad of handsome sea ducks, such as King Eider and Harlequin Duck. But as the days begin to lengthen (and the cold begins to strengthen), it is hard not to be looking forward to the renewal that is spring.

Spring is not the only migration season, of course. The fall migration brings its fair share of returning migrants, some more common in the fall than spring, and occasional rarities and unusual stories. One of my favorite stories is recounted by Tom Gagnon of Northampton about a female Rufous Hummingbird that showed up during the fall of 1996 at a feeder in Agawam. Birders flocked to see the bird throughout the fall. As winter approached, considerable discussion ensued about what to do with the bird, which was unlikely to survive the winter. Federal and state permits were acquired, and the hummingbird was mist-netted and transported to Tom’s greenhouse in Northampton to spend the winter. When spring arrived, the bird was released, presumably never again to be seen in these parts.

The following September 1997, the hummingbird showed up at the exact same feeder in Agawam and resumed its autumnal routines. Again, the bird was captured (after the required federal and state permits were secured) and transported back to the Northampton greenhouse. Upon arrival in the early evening, the female went to roost in the exact same spot on a sweet olive bush that she had used the previous winter. The spring of that second year, Trevor Lloyd-Evans of the Manomet Bird Observatory (now the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences) banded the Rufous Hummingbird. This cycle continued for seven straight years. During the seventh season, the Agawam homeowner reported seeing the bird feeding just before dark, but never saw the bird again. Tom reports that he and the homeowner believed that some predator got the bird overnight, and the two mourned the loss of their avian companion.

Stories like this only intensify my appreciation of and fascination with the feats of migratory birds and spur me on to spend as much time as possible birding during migration. The spring migration is such a scintillating time of year to bird and just so much fun. But I am always struck by how quickly it seems to pass. Song gradually increases from late March through April, with an emphatic crescendo in May. Heading to northern New England gives a birder opportunities for surround-sound bird song through June. But by early July, the woods and meadows have quieted substantially. We realize with a sinking feeling that another migration and courtship season has passed and it will be another year before we hear the songs of the spring again. It seems so unfair how quickly it passes, and how abruptly it ends.. Yes, there will be some song, and yes, the birds are still there, but they are harder to find in their silence and the noise they make turns more muted, less frequent, and more challenging to identify. This is especially true for the birder who does not see well. The difference between the spring and early summer and the rest of the year for me is so striking. Still, I work hard at trying to master the calls and chip notes because I know that most of the year, those are the only sounds that I will hear.

In the end, spring migration means nearly everything to me as a birder without vision. It is my time of year when the playing field evens out just a little between me, the blind birder, and you, the sighted birder. I can perhaps identify the bird song that others may not, and I can participate in vigorous debates about who just sang. It means optimism, joyousness, and anticipation not present most other times of the birding year.

It means a buzz in the air, constant checking with our devices and among ourselves to see if anything showed up somewhere else. It means a profound connection between us and our passion—the birds—in ways that I do not often feel at other times of the year. It is the pinnacle of my birding year, a season to savor, even if it always seems to flash by. So, enjoy. We are about to embark on another spring migration in Massachusetts.

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington.

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