For most of the spring, I was tormented by the feeling that something was wrong. On more than one occasion I told my friends and family that there seemed to be a problem with the birds. I knew there were birds around and was filling out my monthly species lists pretty well, but I felt like they were all around in smaller numbers than usual. I had compiled a long list of species I considered missing in action (MIA) and every visit to the edge of my meadow was eerily and disturbingly silent. The world of birds seemed a little “thin”.
Where were all the warblers? Where were the flycatchers? Where were the cat thrashers and the brown thrashers? What had happened to the Dawn Chorus? Was I wrong in my observations, or were these interpretations real? I even started to wonder if there was something wrong with my hearing. These were the questions that raced through my skull on a daily basis and I was actually starting to worry that we were beginning to experience Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”.
Then, one magical day, things got better. It was the same day that I saw the swamp sparrow that featured in last week’s column, but the sparrow only accounted for about 30 minutes of the four hours I spent in and around the woods of my garden that day. After the encounter with the marsh sparrow, I decided to leave my thinking chair and descend into the forest where I placed a second thinking chair by the stream that empties the meadow. While I was there, a variety of species seemed to materialize out of thin air.
There were wood thrushes, eastern pewees, Louisiana warblers, forked birds, rose-breasted cardinals and even a black and white warbler. And then, further south in the forest, I heard a call note that I recognized as a thrush. To be honest though, I was a bit rusty with my thrush call notes, so it took me a while to identify it as the call note of a bird called a veery (Catharusfuscescens).
One of the species on my MIA list, it’s a bird with one of the most amazing songs you’re likely to hear in a New England forest. Impossible for a human to replicate, I would say it sounds like the whole wind section of an orchestra all playing without a score as they attempt to climb up the ladder and then back down together. I played a song like this with my phone and the response was amazing. A small brown projectile came screaming out of the forest and after a brief and careful engagement I managed to take a wonderful shot of the bird in full song.
This photo, coincidentally, was taken practically in the same place where I took a photo of a wood thrush (Hylocichlamustelina) last summer. In virtually identical profile postures, these two photos offer a wonderful side-by-side comparison of the two species. Obviously both thrushes, both birds have very similar body shapes and general colorations. But the differences in the details are significant. The wood thrush, which is somewhat larger than the veery, has white on the face and bold black spots on the chest. In contrast, the veery is much more subdued with only the faintest suggestion of spotting on the upper chest.
The veery is a tropical bird that comes north for the sole purpose of breeding. During the winter the veery prefers the deep forests of the Amazon and during the breeding season it likes the humid forests where the males will establish territories and the females will build nests. Most nests (which are your typical cup-like constructions) are on the ground, but some are occasionally built in low woody vegetation no more than five feet tall. The female will lay 4-5 pale greenish-blue eggs and incubate them for 10-14 days. Once the chicks hatch, the male will do his fair share of feeding them, but in 10-14 days they will be out of the nest and preparing to fly off to the tropics.
The veery I saw was one of nine different species I could come across on my MIA list that day and as a result I came out of the woods feeling much better about the state of the world . However, it will be interesting to see if this feeling of “evil” persists as summer transitions into fall. I have years of observational data to refer to, but that’s only part of the story. The birds are present, but I seem to be working harder to find them this year than I have had to in years past. If you had a similar feeling, I’d love to hear about it.
Bill Danielson has been a professional wildlife writer and photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Nature Conservancy and Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more information, visit his website at www.speakinotgofnature.com, or visit Speaking of Nature on Facebook.