October 2017

Vol. 45, No. 5

Musings from the Blind Birder: Songs of the Season

Martha Steele

The New England autumn has always been my favorite season, with refreshing and crisp air replacing the stifling heat and humidity of the summer, a kaleidoscope of colors unfolding across the landscape, and the ability to enjoy the outdoors without annoying insects. As a blind birder, autumn has become a bit more bittersweet, as it marks the transition between the songs of the spring and summer to the silence of the winter.

For the most part, late fall and winter birding is largely a visual experience. Seabirds, such as King Eiders and Harlequin Ducks, become frequent targets of birders shivering in the cold offshore winds. We hope for a possible irruption of northern species to bring such delights as Red and White-winged crossbills, Pine Siskins, Bohemian Waxwings, and Pine Grosbeaks. The uncommon or rare land bird will bring hordes of birders to its location. At this point, I can only take vicarious pleasure at hearing about these birds as they say little or nothing at all. I certainly remember how beautiful our winter birds are and I will never forget the many extraordinary encounters with such notable species as the Northern Hawk Owl flying low over my head, the irruption of Great Grey Owls in Montreal, Pine Grosbeaks at our Vermont feeder, and Bohemian Waxwings dotting a winter fruit tree.

But I am most in my element these days when the birds are in full song. It is difficult to overstate how joyful I am listening to birds that become more and more familiar as I continue to learn their songs. This past summer, Bob and I would sit on our deck at our Vermont home, sipping our morning mugs of coffee from about 6:00 am to about 8:00 am and just listen to the nonstop bird song. Sitting in our chairs over the course of several mornings in late June and early July, we heard most of the following birds: Common Loon (flying overhead); Broad-winged Hawk; Black-billed Cuckoo; Ruby-throated Hummingbird; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; Downy, Hairy, and Pileated woodpeckers; Northern Flicker; Eastern Phoebe; Red-eyed and Blue-headed vireos; Blue Jay; Common Raven; Tree Swallow; Black-capped Chickadee; Red-breasted and White-breasted nuthatches; Winter Wren; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Eastern Bluebird; American Robin; Wood, Swainson’s, and Hermit thrushes; Veery; Cedar Waxwing; Northern Parula; Nashville, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Yellow-rumped, and Black-throated Green warblers; Ovenbird; Common Yellowthroat; American Redstart; Scarlet Tanager; Rose-breasted Grosbeak; Chipping and White-throated sparrows; Purple Finch; and American Goldfinch. We would just look at each other, smile, and revel in our mutual enjoyment of this auditory paradise.

We would have a discussion about our favorite songs. But song, like anything else depends on the circumstances of when and where you hear it. Hearing a truncated or muted song of a Veery in the middle of Mount Auburn Cemetery in May among many other singing species is not at all the same as standing in the early morning or evening in a remote northern forest edge and listening to a Veery in full, sweet song. It is simply beautiful, moving, emotional, connecting, and transfixing. Similarly, a Winter Wren, whose long and melodious song belies its diminutive size, is stunning when heard on its breeding grounds as opposed to its song being lost among many other birds on its migration stopovers. Some of my other favorite songsters include Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Loon, Purple Finch, and Wood and Hermit thrushes.

There are plenty of other songs that, although not characterized as particularly melodic, nonetheless engender an instantaneous excited shout of “[fill in the blank]!” For us, while peregrinating around the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, birds whose songs make us slam on the brakes of our slow-moving car include American Woodcock, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher, Mourning Warbler, Field and Lincoln’s sparrows, and Eastern Meadowlark.

It is profoundly satisfying to hear a song and know what bird is with us in that moment. Although my images of the stunning beauty of our winter birds, particularly the majestic sea ducks, are still with me as Bob or others describe what they see, I have to confess that it is not nearly as appealing to bird when there is little or no song. The real birding season for me is the spring and summer in the Northeast. I would even go further and say that the best birding by song is while listening to birds on their breeding territories, where they sing at their most intense, and often without the dizzying, overwhelming, and confusing medley of song that can greet us on a fallout migration day in Massachusetts. The fallouts are a visual spectacle but a major auditory challenge, and seeking assistance from your birding partner can be frustrating because we are so distracted by so much song all at once. The song of the bird on its breeding territory is also often a totally different experience, such as for the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which belts out a robust and beautiful song from the tops of northern coniferous trees. As with the Winter Wren, it is hard to believe that such a small bird can dominate the space around you while you listen with awe.

So, enjoy the upcoming winter of New England birding. But me? I cannot wait until spring rolls around again.

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. Martha can be reached at

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