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

Now that spring is definitely here, what better time to present the fourth (and final?) Hindsight installment on bird vocalizations. While it is difficult to discuss on paper what birds have to say for themselves, it is hoped there is some value in these articles, since there is no greater favor birders can do for themselves than to learn some songs and calls. This skill is of enormous benefit not only in identifying a wide range of birds, but also in simply finding them in the first place.

As was the case in the three earlier discussions of this subject, there would be little value here in repeating what one can hear on recordings and describing a species’ primary song. Instead, the following comments will address some atypical vocalizations which might be unfamiliar to birders, and those which have the most potential for aural misidentifications.

A Chip Off the Old Sparrow

Probably — no, make that definitely — the best place to begin learning bird songs is with the sparrows. Why? The best reason is that many birders find visual identification of sparrows relatively difficult, but their songs are almost always more distinctive than their plumages. For example, beginners often struggle with telling Song, Savannah, and Lincoln’s apart visually, while the songs of these three differ quite a bit from each other.

In addition, even birders who know how to distinguish sparrow plumages can’t identify what they can’t see, and sparrows usually seem to be lurking under cover. But when sparrows sing — even the more secretive ones like Henslow’s, Le Conte’s, and Swamp — they tend to sit up in plain sight for the benefit of those birders who hear and recognize the song, locate the bird, and then study the bird at leisure.

Of course, it’s not all that easy. While sparrow songs are typically easy enough to tell apart, their call notes or chips are not. With a little practice one can recognize that loud and sharp chip coming from the marsh as a Swamp Sparrow. The hollower “chimp” note of the Song Sparrow is pretty distinctive. So is the “ssssst” of the Fox Sparrow, which sounds longer and thinner than the “ssst” of American Tree/Savannah/White-throated sparrows. But I admit I have trouble distinguishing the call notes of these last three sparrows from each other – and, for all I can tell, pretty much every Minnesota sparrow can say “ssst” if it wants to!

I know the good old Song Sparrow does this. More than once have I heard a “ssst” coming from a thicket which I assumed was going to be a White-throated, only to have a Song Sparrow emerge into view. I even once heard a Song Sparrow give a loud “squeak!” call note: if I had not seen it, I probably would have marked down a heard Rose-breasted Grosbeak on the day’s list.

More importantly, the Song Sparrow even fails at times to deliver its familiar and ubiquitous song. Instead, it can come out with an atypical song which is longer, more complex, and hard to describe other than to say it doesn’t sound like a Song Sparrow. I have noticed this especially in late summer or early fall and suspect it is coming from a juvenile who is learning to sing and just practicing (and who definitely needs the practice).

As mentioned in, the sparrow songs with the most potential for confusion involve the trills of the Chipping and Swamp sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, and how similar they can be to the songs of the Pine, Orange-crowned, Palm, Worm-eating, and Wilson’s warblers. There is no need here to repeat the similarities and differences of all these trills, but the reader does need to refer to that article before claiming to have mastered the songs of those two sparrows and the junco.

Even more disconcerting is that more than one observer has heard Chipping Sparrows give a slow series of buzzes just like a Clay-colored, while others have heard Clay-coloreds sound the same as a Chipping. In addition, I have sometimes heard Dark-eyed Juncos with atypical songs. I have field notes on one junco which sounded somewhat like a Clay-colored Sparrow, and notes on another with a song vaguely similar to a Blue-winged Warbler’s!

On occasion, I have heard another sparrow which could have been mistaken for a Clay-colored. It seems the Harris’s Sparrow often varies its slow series of clear whistles by mixing some buzzes into its song. When it does so, the song then resembles that of the White-crowned Sparrow, and sometimes it can also sound quite like a Clay-colored when all the whistled notes are replaced by buzzes.

Two final caveats on sparrow songs. First, be sure to take note of the Sprague’s Pipit comment in The Grasshopper Sparrow’s long, spiraling, alternate song, which is unfamiliar to many birders, bears enough of a similarity to the pipit’s aerial song to create potential confusion. And second, when you’re out listening for that highly local and highly sought Henslow’s Sparrow, beware of distant Eastern Meadowlark call notes and of the end of the Savannah Sparrow’s song: both strongly resemble the Henslow’s “tslick”.

Short Tips on Longspurs

The four longspurs and Snow Bunting are essentially sparrows since they’re all classified in the same family, so you’re not quite done with your sparrow lesson. [Author's Note, July 2016 – These species were reclassified as non-sparrows a few years ago.] Songs are not the problem here, since four of these five species don’t breed – or normally sing – anywhere near Minnesota, and the Chestnut-collared’s beautiful meadowlark-like song is typically heard only within a few square miles in Clay County. But Lapland and Smith’s longspurs and Snow Buntings are regularly occurring migrants, so a few comments on their call notes might be helpful, especially considering these birds are often detected only by their call notes as they fly overhead.

First of all, both Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting give a plain whistled “tew” call note, usually in flight, and to my ear this note sounds the same in both species. (By the way, none of the other three longspurs ever says “tew” to my knowledge.) These two species also have a rattle or twitter flight call, but these are noticeably different: the longspur’s call is a drier and relatively unmusical rattle, unlike the bunting’s higher-pitched and more musical twittering.

More challenging is to learn the difference between the rattles of the Smith’s and Lapland longspurs, but it is definitely worth the effort considering how highly sought the Smith’s is. With practice (and a good opportunity for this might be in mid-October at Rothsay WMA in Wilkin County), you’ll be able to hear how the Smith’s rattle is more of a ticking: it’s especially slower, usually longer in duration, and in a way lower-pitched than the Lapland’s somewhat cricket-like rattle.

Speaking of rattles, both the Chestnut-collared and McCown’s also have one, but I haven’t paid enough attention to these two to say whether they sound more like a Lapland or a Smith’s. But if you’re ever at Felton listening to Chestnut-collareds, note that they also give a note which has been transcribed as “queedle”. And if you are ever lucky enough to find a McCown’s here, try to hear its curious metallic “woink” call note.

One final comment on the Lapland Longspur. Besides its “tew” and rattle, it often gives another call note which is harder to describe and sounds somewhat similar to a Horned Lark or American Pipit. And a comment on the Snow Bunting. In addition to its “tew”, it sometimes gives a clear single buzz in flight. This call is distinctive but not quite unique: the Dickcissel actually has a quite similar flight note, which has been likened to the buzz of an electric shaver.

Icterids, With the Accent on “Ick”

I suppose if blackbirds are all you think of when you come to the family group Icteridae in your bird book, perhaps “ick” might be an appropriate reaction. After all, who has any use for grackles or cowbirds? Yet, keep in mind this family also includes such fancier birds as Bobolinks, meadowlarks, and orioles. Even if it didn’t, there are still some pretty cool blackbirds out there, along with some grackle and cowbird species which listers have been known to pursue.

Let’s begin, then, with the Bobolink and a misconception many birders have with its “ink” (not “ick”) call note. While this metallic note is distinctive once you’re used to it and is a good way to locate a Bobolink migrating overhead, some caution is in order since I hesitate to consider this note all that unique. American Goldfinches, Baltimore Orioles, and even Rose-breasted Grosbeaks can give very similar calls which I would also transcribe as “ink”. Also note that when the Rose-breasted Grosbeak does this call (and they do it a lot), it catches many birders off guard: that truly unique and easily recognized grosbeak “squeak!” is only part of its repertoire.

More importantly, perhaps, is the issue of meadowlark vocalizations, since these are often the only safe way to determine whether or not you’ve got an Eastern or Western. As far as their primary territorial songs go, the difference between the two species is obvious enough, but at times there are meadowlarks (hybrids?) which sing intermediate songs and might defy identification.

Meadowlark call notes are also worth paying attention to. The most typical call of the Eastern is a loud and raspy “dzert” (which at a distance can sound like a Henslow’s Sparrow); the Western’s corresponding call is a simple but full-toned “chuck”. As far as I know, these two notes are respectively diagnostic, with one meadowlark “never” giving the other’s call. However, both species also give similar rattling flight calls, which to my ear are not separable. And there is yet another meadowlark call note, which I describe as a soft “wick” or “wink”: I know Westerns do this for sure, but so far I’m unsure whether or not Easterns do (I suspect they do, however).

Moving on to those icky blackbirds, I’m fond of telling other birders how the Rusty Blackbird happens to be one of my favorite birds of any family. This is partly due to its name, which is appropriate for two reasons (most birds seem to have no useful or readily apparent reason for their names!). With this blackbird the “Rusty” part applies both to its fall/winter plumage and to its song, which consists of a high-pitched “rusty-hinge” note preceded by a softer chattering series. Be aware, however, that the Brewer’s Blackbird ends its song with a very similar note: the difference is this blackbird’s song starts with a single “kshh” note rather than a chatter.

With practice, one can typically distinguish both the Rusty’s and the Brewer’s call notes from those of the other blackbirds. The Rusty’s metallic “chack” is often noticeably higher-pitched than a grackle’s or Red-winged’s note, while the Brewer’s call note is even more recognizable: a distinctively short and very dry “chk”.

The Winter Finches of Our Discontent

It seems I had also made an allusion to the same John Steinbeck novel in an earlier article in this Hindsight series, but, considering I’m a former English major, there is this irresistible urge to put my college education to some sort of use here. And indeed there is undoubtedly some discontent and frustration encountered as birders struggle with the difficulties of learning the songs and calls of those so-called winter finches.

One species’ vocalizations which certainly involve more than the usual amount of confusion are those of the Purple Finch. While its most distinctive call note is an easily recognized metallic “tink”, this finch also gives a two- or three-syllabled whistle which sounds very much like a Pine Grosbeak. I have been aware of this call most often in September and October, and I suspect it may be the cause of some erroneous reports of earlier-than-normal and heard-only Pine Grosbeaks.

Another potentially confusing Purple Finch call note was mentioned in the second Hindsight article in this series on songs. This call sounds a lot like a Red-eyed Vireo, and it probably has resulted in some incorrect reports of that vireo being around earlier or later than it should be.

The warbling, rambling song of the Purple Finch is a problem which even causes discontent on my part. I have to admit I cannot always tell if the song I’m hearing is a Purple or House Finch. Usually the latter species ends its song with a diagnostic down-slurred “cheew”, but when it doesn’t do this I’m often left guessing. Usually, however, the Purple’s song seems longer, higher-pitched, richer, and more complex than the House Finch’s.

It also helps if the House Finch starts giving some simple call notes. While there are some notes which both these finches seem to give, I have never heard a House Finch give the Purple’s diagnostic “tink” note, and typically its calls sound much like a House Sparrow’s. House Finches, however, also give “jib” or “jib jib” calls which could easily mislead one into thinking there are some Red Crossbills around.

And this definitely adds to the difficulties birders have as they work on trying to distinguish the calls of the two crossbills. While the soft redpoll-like chattering of the White-winged is something not heard from the Red Crossbill, the White-winged also has single notes which birders who have seen lots of crossbills still have trouble telling from the Red’s calls. The key is that this White-winged note has a rising inflection lacking in the Red’s repertoire: to my ear, it is a querying “wink?”, as opposed to the flatter “jib” or “jeep” of the Red Crossbill.

In case some readers still think it is too much of a stretch to use the word discontent to introduce this section, just wait until the Red Crossbill gets split into a half dozen or more separate species! These splits are more than just a rumor, since for years some researchers have proposed separating these crossbills according to range, habitat/conifer preference, and call notes. The hint here should be obvious: start carefully listening to – and recording – any Red Crossbills you hear from now on. I have heard what sounds like three distinct Red Crossbill call notes (and species?) — in Minnesota.

A few final, fascinating, and frustrating facts on finches follow. (Alliteration is something else I learned as an English major.) First and foremost, be aware how varied the vocalizations of a flock of Pine Siskins can be and how they might lead you into a misidentification. When siskins sing vigorously, they include notes which clearly sound like they are coming from Boreal Chickadees, Evening Grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls, or goldfinches – or all of the above nearly simultaneously. On more than one occasion I momentarily thought I was hearing one of these birds, only to realize it was just siskins.

Secondly, after having watched and listened to American Goldfinches for decades, just last summer I discovered a call note of this familiar species which I somehow had never noticed before. This was in Newfoundland, where I have been many times before, and twice I heard what I was sure were American Pipits flying overhead: later they proved to be goldfinches. Discontent, indeed!