Nature’s Orchestra: A Celebration of Birdsong

Spring in the Finger Lakes always arrives in its own sweet time. March and April with their chilly weather and drab landscapes seem never-ending. But listen! Nature’s orchestra is already tuning up. Birds are singing!

Often it’s the cardinal’s flute-like voice that opens the year’s concert. Other members of the woodwind section soon join in: titmice and chickadees singing merry, up-and-down whistles. In March it’s the turn of the Red-winged Blackbird shouting his fanfare from the newly thawed wetlands. April brings the robin’s cheery solo from the treetops, while flocks of sunshine-yellow goldfinches sing their tinkling melodies in chorus.

Finally the entire orchestra builds to a crescendo in May when the migrant songbirds return. Our forests, fields, parks and gardens are suddenly filled with colorful orioles, tanagers, thrushes, grosbeaks and warblers, all pouring heart and soul into their promise of spring.

From the woods come the sounds of the rhythm section: Woodpeckers rat-tat-tat on tree trunks and Ruffed Grouse thump drum-rolls from fallen logs. They use these sounds like songbirds use song, to claim and defend nesting territories and to attract mates, because much as we might like to think that birds sing for the joy of life, underlying their music making is a serious message. It’s birds’ way of communicating with each other, meaning “come hither” to the opposite sex and “keep out” to competitors.

Our beautiful Finger Lakes region is full of places to find birds. Take a walk outdoors and enjoy the songs of spring. It’ll be music to your ears!

Photo: The sound of a male Ruffed Grouse drumming from deep in the forest is one of the icons of spring in the Finger Lakes. He stands on a moss-covered log and flaps his wings in a distinct rhythm, beginning slowly with a series of deep, muffled thumps that speed up to end as a rapid whirring. Drumming serves the same purpose as birdsong, to claim a territory and attract females.

Photo: A brilliantly hued male Indigo Bunting sings his lively rhapsody in blue. Like most songbirds, only the male bunting sings, while his secretive mate builds their well-hidden nest near the ground. Good spots to find these birds in the Finger Lakes are shrubby abandoned fields, along roadsides and woodland edges, and in brushy vegetation in power line rights-of-way.

Photo: Woodpeckers, like the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, rap on resonant tree trunks with their strong bills to communicate with potential mates and rivals. For most it’s a simple drum roll on an even tempo, but the sapsucker’s unique – he’s got rhythm! He drums a rapid volley followed by a series of slower and slower taps. Sapsuckers sometimes bang on metal chimneys, ladders or even street signs, making a racket seldom appreciated by slumbering humans nearby!

Photo: Birders often describe bird songs using English phrases as a memory aid. The Chestnut-sided Warbler’s song sounds like pleased…pleased…pleased-to-MEET-YA! You can find this little bird, with its greenish-yellow cap and chestnut-brown streaks along its sides, in scrubby woodlands and open areas.

Photo: All winter long the American Goldfinch was a drab little bird visiting our backyard feeders, but by the time the redbud blooms he’s in bright yellow spring plumage and his tinkling, canary-like song fills the air. Goldfinch music continues well into summer because these birds don’t begin nesting until July. By getting this late start, they take advantage of thistles and other plants’ seeds to feed their young.

Photo:Making a vivid splash of red against the woodland greenery is the male Scarlet Tanager singing his buzzy melody high in the forest canopy. The female’s dress is a more muted olive green. Listen for these birds in large stretches of deciduous woodland, including suburban parks with large trees.

Photo: One of the most widespread and easily spotted warblers in our region is the Yellow Warbler. It likes to nest in wet thickets and shrubby areas, especially where there are willows. Look for a small yellow bird with a bright voice that seems to say “Sweet…sweet…sweet…I’m so sweet.”

Photo: Coniferous forests are home to the Black-throated Green Warbler, particularly where there are stands of eastern hemlock trees. When the male first arrives in the Finger Lakes in late April to early May, he’ll sing all day long to stake his claim on a patch of forest. Birders translate his sweet, high-pitched song – zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee – into the phrase trees-trees-whispering-trees.


by Marie Read
Marie Read can be contacted by e-mail at mpr5@cornell.edu or by phone at 607-539-6608. Her website is www.marieread.com