BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Songs (Part Two)

The birds are back and singing! It’s spring again. Well, sort of. At least it was last week. As I write this, the windchill is close to 30 below, and yesterday there was yet another snowstorm in parts of western Minnesota. Given these weather conditions, one has to wonder how those phoebes and other insectivores which migrated in last week are doing. Listen carefully, I fear, and you may hear some of them singing that proverbial swan song if all the bugs died last night. Now that certainly would be a challenge worthy of this column: trying to identify a nondescript flycatcher which sounds like a swan!

But I digress. It will warm up again (I think) as April progresses, more and more migrants will arrive, and once again the woods and wetlands will be alive with sound. Now, therefore, is the time to brush up on your skill at identifying those sounds, and what follows is the second in a series on learning a few key bird vocalizations. And it is worth repeating here a few introductory comments from Part One of this series (

First and foremost, remember that learning bird songs and call notes is probably the single most valuable aid to finding and identifying birds. Second, this skill is certainly difficult to master and the learning process will be full of frustrations, but it is definitely worth the effort. And third, this article obviously cannot (and has no reason to) cover every bird sound one may encounter. Instead, a more helpful procedure will be to concentrate on those which may be unfamiliar to experienced birders, those often involved in misidentifications, and the vocalizations of those species which tend to be difficult to find or to visually identify.

Last year’s article on songs and calls was limited to non-passerines. This second installment will cover the section of the checklist from flycatchers to starlings, with parts planned for the next two springs on the rest of the list (warblers through winter finches).

Pewees Don’t Always Say “Pewee”

So, you find yourself looking at a flycatcher with wing bars and no eye ring, and you figure it must be a pewee. Well, perhaps it is, but don’t forget to first make sure it isn’t a phoebe — which, contrary to what most books say, typically does have wings bars. Or a Willow or Alder flycatcher — which, contrary to what some books say, typically shows little or nothing in the way of an eye ring. Or even an Olive-sided Flycatcher — which typically covers up those white tufts with its folded wings while perched.

But wait. This article is supposed to be about bird songs, so let’s assume you already knew that other stuff and, indeed, it is a pewee. And let’s also assume you’re clever enough to know the Western Wood-Pewee finds its way into Minnesota on a casual basis. And, what the heck, you’re even savvy enough to know the two pewees are safely separated in the field only by their vocalizations. So you listen up and hope to hear something other than the familiar and expected “pee a wee” song of the Eastern Wood-Pewee. And, amazingly, it does start giving a down-slurred “peeur” call instead, along with occasional brief twittering notes. It must be a Western Wood-Pewee!?

Sorry. (And you were doing so well there for awhile in the previous paragraph on your knowledge of pewee trivia.) The fact is that both Eastern and Western wood-pewees say “peeur” — and both can give similar twittering notes. Before claiming to have heard a Western Wood-Pewee in Minnesota, make sure that “peeur” call has a distinctive burry or nasal or buzzy quality to it, something totally lacking in the Eastern’s call. Note as well this primary song of the Western typically sounds more one-syllabled than the clearly two-syllabled “pee ur” of the Eastern.

Empidonax? Must be Latin for “Empossible”

A quiz. The hardest birds to identify are: a) hawks; b) shorebirds; c) immature gulls; d) silent Empidonax flycatchers; e) confusing fall warblers; f) sparrows; g) all of the above. If you chose (d), you probably have a lot of birders agreeing with you. And if you chose (g), consider investing in a life membership in the MOU so you don’t miss any issues of The Loon — it will take a few years before these “Birding By Hindsight” articles can address all your concerns.

To be sure, there are some clues other than voice which might at times lead you to the correct identification of an Empidonax: e.g., breeding habitat, range, bill shape, length of primaries, and even some plumage characteristics. But certainly here is one group of birds whose songs and call notes should be among the first you try to learn.

There would be little reason here to discuss at length the territorial songs of the five species of Empidonax flycatchers which breed in Minnesota, since these can be readily heard on recordings. But there are a few things to take note of as you listen to these:

• The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher’s song may sound similar to the Least’s, but listen for the much longer pauses between the two-syllabled song phrases, which are accented on the first syllable. (The Least’s snappy “che bek” call is repeated more often, often without pause, and accented on the second syllable.) Yellow-bellieds also have a whistled “chu wee” call note, which is curiously more musical than its territorial song — quite the opposite of what is normally the case with songbirds.

• Many birders are fond of describing the Acadian Flycatcher’s song as “pizza”, which would imply the accent is on the first syllable. But this translation is quite misleading, since the Acadian’s explosive “peet seet!” song is clearly accented on the second syllable. Its call note is a loud and sharp “peet”.

• Another inaccurate and misleading song description is imposed on the Alder Flycatcher: it hardly sings “fee bee o”, as some field guides would describe it. Instead, listen for a burry, two-syllabled “free beeur”, accented on the second syllable; at close range it might sound two-and-a-half-syllabled. The closely related Willow Flycatcher, which is virtually identical to the Alder visually (even in the hand), sings a sneezy “fitz bew” with the syllables equally accented.

• Among the Alder’s various call notes is a loud, buzzy, siskin-like “zhreer”, while the Willow’s corresponding note is a soft, dry “sprrit”. But also be especially aware of its most distinctive call note: a soft but clear musical “peep”. No other Minnesota Empidonax has such a note. The call note of both the closely related Willow Flycatcher and the Least Flycatcher is a flat “whit”, although the Willow’s note will often sound a bit more musical than the Least’s: i.e., “wheat”.

Vireo Variations

With one exception, the songs of the vireos found in Minnesota are distinctive enough for most practiced listeners to identify with a minimum of difficulty. However, that one exception — the Red-eyed’s song vs. the Philadelphia’s — presents a maximum of difficulty, so much so that I cannot tell these songs apart with any consistency or confidence. I even doubt the vireos can tell themselves apart: on several occasions I have played a recording of a Red-eyed’s song and had a Philadelphia fly in....or vice versa!

It is said the Philadelphia’s song is slower and higher-pitched than the Red-eyed’s, and I am sure this is true much of the time. But I am equally sure there are many times when there is no apparent difference. I tend to have more confidence in the higher-pitched nature of the Philadelphia’s song than I do in its slowness, since Red-eyeds often vary the length of the pauses between their song phrases.

I definitely maintain we have no accurate notion of the Philadelphia Vireo’s true status as a breeding species in Minnesota, since no one has ever tracked down all those ubiquitous Red-eyed Vireo-like songs to see how often they actually come from a Philadelphia.

There is a much clearer difference in call notes between the two. The Philadelphia has a multi-syllabled raspy scolding call, while the Red-eyed’s gives a clearer, whining, one-syllabled note that drops off in pitch.

(As for the other vireos, the Warbling’s note is somewhat catbird-like and rises in pitch and in volume at the end. I confess I’m unfamiliar with the Bell’s Vireo’s call note, but the Solitary, Yellow-throated, and White-eyed all give a multi-syllabled scolding series similar to the Philadelphia’s call, which may be shorter in duration than the other three. I have also heard the notes in the Yellow-throated’s series to descend in pitch, while the pitch of the Solitary’s and White-eyed’s series seems to stay the same.)

Finally, the Red-eyed Vireo is also involved at times with a misidentification of quite a different nature. While birders tend to be quite familiar with what a Purple Finch looks like, most are unaware that one of its call notes is a nondescript phrase which resembles a Red-eyed Vireo’s song phrase. The result? More than once there have been reports of Red-eyed Vireos heard between late fall and early spring, and I strongly suspect the listeners actually heard a Purple Finch.

Croaking Crows

Is it true that crows only caw and ravens only croak? No, nevermore! In reality, ravens have quite an array of vocalizations, but the issue here is the strong potential for heard-only American Crows to be misidentified as Common Ravens. Many birders are unaware that crows frequently give a guttural croaking call which is unlike their usual “caw”. The result? I suspect that over the years many Common Raven reports from the Twin Cities south have actually been of heard American Crows — i.e., birds with their minds and mouths in the gutter.

And, as long as we’re on the subject of corvids, a brief reminder about the need for caution when claiming to have located a heard-only Buteo. As discussed in Part One of this series, Blue Jays can give perfect imitations of the calls of Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, and Broad-winged hawks.

Phoebes and White-throated Sparrows in January?

It is a cold day in midwinter (sort of like what it is today in early April), and a clear, two-syllabled whistle is heard: “fee bee” – or, if you prefer, “phoebe”. It never ceases to surprise me how many less experienced listeners assume they are hearing an Eastern Phoebe. Or, when informed it’s not a phoebe, they then propose an alternate identification of the song: White-throated Sparrow.

Of course, most Minnesota birders would recognize that song as the Black-capped Chickadee's. The next time you hear it, try quizzing your friends and neighbors who think they are familiar with the chickadees at their feeders. Odds are they believe that chickadees only say “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, and they will be impressed by your knowledge of bird songs. (Just don’t tell them about that “raven” you heard last year in Minneapolis!)

Winter Wrens Call as Well as Sing

No other Minnesota bird has a song as musical and as elaborate as the Winter Wren: a song so distinctive that it is easily learned and remembered. Unfortunately, hearing this song usually doesn’t help much if you’re trying to see the wren, as it often chooses a singing perch concealed high in the interior branches of a spruce tree. But at least you know it’s there (somewhere!), and, besides, a Winter Wren isn’t much to look at anyway.

Just as nondescript as the Winter Wren’s plumage is its call note, a sound that many experienced bird listeners are unfamiliar with. But it is definitely worth learning, especially during migration, if you hope to find this secretive wren as it skulks in the undergrowth. At the pine plantation at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, for example, Winter Wrens are almost common each fall, but most visitors are unaware of this since they fail to recognize the call note. Tune your ear to its soft, usually two-syllabled, somewhat blackbird-like “chimp chimp” or “chak chak”, and you’ll probably be surprised how widespread the Winter Wren actually is during migration.

Marsh Warblers and Wrens

Once you learn the chattering song of the Sedge Wren, it becomes clear how common and widespread this species is in the state. To be sure, this is one of the most useful songs a birder can learn from the simple standpoint of locating the bird, since it often sings from the top of a shrub or tussock. Silent Sedge Wrens, however, can be virtually impossible to spot: in fact, I would rank this species as one of the most secretive Minnesota skulkers when it irrevocably sinks into a thicket as you approach.

But as you work on learning this song, there is one caveat to be aware of. Common Yellowthroats don’t always sing “witchity witchity”; they also have a little-known song which closely resembles the chattering series of the Sedge Wren. This alternate song of the yellowthroat, however, lacks the Sedge Wren’s hesitating introductory notes (usually there are two) which precede its rapid and uniform chattering.

And as long as you’re standing around in the marsh getting wet and feeding the mosquitoes, also start listening more closely to any Marsh Wrens you hear. It seems there has been talk (or is it chatter?) in recent years of yet another “split” with two species of Marsh Wrens. I confess I know little about this, except that the primary difference between the two is said to involve the songs. The proposed split would involve separating the eastern and western populations, with the range division between the two apparently somewhere in the Great Plains. So, is it possible there are (or will be) two species of Marsh Wrens singing and breeding in western Minnesota?

As explained in Birding (22:99–100): “Eastern birds frequently introduce songs with a nasal note not heard in western birds, whose songs contain harsher, more grating sounds than do songs of eastern birds. Western birds have larger repertoires, and they shift between songs in their repertoire more rapidly but more predictably than do eastern birds.”

(Yeah, right. On second thought, it might be easier to be eaten by mosquitoes in a north woods bog while listening to Winter Wrens.)

Creepy Kinglets

I still remember how long it took me to recognize the Golden-crowned Kinglet’s song, even though learning its high-pitched and rapid “see see see” call note was a relative cinch. My problem was that its song descends at the end into some nasal or buzzy chickadee-like notes, and for a time I mistakenly thought I was hearing Boreal Chickadees.

This kinglet’s song, however, still has the strong potential for being confused with the Cape May Warbler’s clear “seet seet seet seet” song. This occurs since the kinglet frequently gives only the first half of its song; however, this series of deliberate “seet” notes to rise a bit in pitch, unlike the Cape May’s song in which the notes remain on the same pitch.

But there is also a problem with one of the Golden-crowned Kinglet’s call notes which still remains, at least to my ear. Instead of giving the characteristic “see see see” series, some Golden-crowneds just give a single, long “seeeet” note, and I still cannot usually tell it from the Brown Creeper’s call note. And, to make matters worse, some Cedar Waxwing calls can be louder than normal and sound essentially the same as this kinglet/creeper note.

Thrushes Underfoot and Overhead

Regardless of the Winter Wren’s vocal skills, some would vote for the thrushes as the best singers in Minnesota, and they do have a point. These songs of the Veery, Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s, Hermit, and Wood thrushes are not only melodious but useful as well, since thrushes during the breeding season are difficult to detect unless singing. With practice, these five songs are not difficult to distinguish from each other: only the songs of the Hermit and Wood thrushes are similar enough to be confused (but all you need to do is hear the Hermit’s introductory “key” note which is not given by the Wood Thrush).

More useful here would be a brief summary of these thrushes’ call notes, which are often quite helpful when identifying these birds. Visually thrushes are not as easy to distinguish as many birders would think, especially since they are fond of lurking in the shadows and under thickets where decent views are hard to come by. Therefore, start listening for their most typical call notes (and there are a variety of other thrush call notes which are difficult to describe):

• The Veery can give either a down-slurred “veer” and a rising “vree”, with both notes reminiscent of its full song.

• Gray-cheekeds have a similar “veer” call, but with practice it will sound sharper, higher-pitched, and perhaps buzzier than a Veery's.

• The Swainson’s note is a fairly loud and sharp “wick”, which curiously resembles the whip-poor-will’s call note.

• Hermits have the softest call note: a somewhat blackbird-like “chuck”.

• And the Wood Thrush has a loud, rapid, and distinctively multi-syllabled call: “wick wick wick wick wick”, somewhat like a repeated Swainson’s note.

If you want a bigger challenge, try your hand (or ear) at identifying thrushes at night as they migrate overhead. Our own Bill Evans, Jr. (formerly a Rochester resident) has been a pioneer of sorts in working with these and other nocturnal call notes, and he has even published a recording of them (see Some thrush calls heard overhead in the dark may not always be identifiable, and there are other nocturnal migrants which can sound like thrushes, but with practice some of these calls are recognizable:

• The Veery’s and Gray-cheeked’s typical nocturnal notes are essentially the same as their respective diurnal notes.

• The Swainson’s note is a clear, spring peeper-like “peep”.

• The Hermit’s note resembles that of the Swainson’s, but it is thinner and higher-pitched.

• The Wood Thrush’s note is lower-pitched, more abrupt, and burrier than the others.

A Higher-than-Normal Veery Song?

One of the best sounds of the prairie grasslands of the northern Great Plains is the aerial song of the Sprague’s Pipit, a song which resembles the pattern and breezy quality of the Veery’s song. No, I’m not suggesting a birder would ever confuse the two, but there is a song of the grasslands of western Minnesota which could easily mislead a birder into thinking he or she has heard a pipit.

Although most experienced birders are familiar with the thin buzzing song of the Grasshopper Sparrow, not many are aware this sparrow has a longer alternate song. This song adds descending, Veery-like phrases to the end of its primary song which clearly do resemble the notes in a Sprague’s Pipit’s song: “tic zzzzzzzz zeeur zeeur zeeur zeer zeer zrr”. Remember, though, the Grasshopper Sparrow sings from the grass, while the pipit’s song comes from overhead.

Also keep in mind that Sprague's Pipit is only Casual in Minnesota, so be sure to consider and eliminate the more likely possibility of having heard a Grasshopper Sparrow before reporting a heard-only Sprague’s.

A Buzzing Among the Cedars

If you’ve spent any time at all in winter with Bohemian Waxwings, you’ve probably become familiar with their calls, which are lower-pitched and buzzier than the weaker and thinner notes of the typical Cedar Waxwing. One caution, however. Just as Cedar Waxwings can vary their calls enough to sound more like a Brown Creeper or Golden-crowned Kinglet (see above), they can alternately add a trilled quality to their calls which makes them sound atypically buzzy and enough like Bohemians to cause confusion.

Therefore, make sure you see, as well as hear, that suspected Bohemian Waxwing when birding in southern Minnesota where this species is usually rare. And, of course, be especially skeptical of any Bohemian you think you hear anywhere in Minnesota from late April through early October.

Startling Starlings

This paragraph could almost be safely omitted from this article, since I suspect most readers are aware of how well European Starlings can give essentially perfect imitations of the songs of other birds. But I’ll be brief and not even try to list the wide and surprising array of species starlings have been known to mimic. Suffice it to say that before reporting any rarity you’re pretty sure you hear but can’t see, be sure to take a second to look around and make sure there aren’t any starlings nearby.