June 21, 2018
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Vireos not flashy, but song ‘fresh’

By Chris Corio, Special to the News

Recently I’ve been blessed with many great bird sightings and intriguing glimpses into bird life. A recent trip back to New Jersey saw me at my favorite local birding spot — Lenape Park in Union County.

The day was overcast, slightly cool and muggy. The trailside foliage was especially dense, lush and green; many of the trees were draped in vines, some with tiny blossoms.

All the usual suspects were there: robins and catbirds skulked in thick, low shrubs; common grackles were more conspicuous as they flew back and forth over the path. A red-bellied woodpecker called from the creekside trees, unseen, but its voice was unmistakable. A special treat was a belted kingfisher flashing over the creek, uttering its harsh, chattering call.

Warbling vireos, too, were present, and I heard their meandering songs as I scanned the tree canopy. Finally, I got a bead on one and zeroed in on it with the binoculars and was treated to its acrobatic maneuvers as it foraged among the outer leaves and twigs. At times it hung upside down to get at its meal, then, letting go, fluttered down like a leaf to a lower branch to start again.

Vireos are not flashy songbirds; they generally don’t sport bright or colorful plumage or markings. Warbling vireos are the plainest members of their clan, lacking even the black-and-white eyebrow stripe of the red-eyed vireo, or noticeable white “spectacles” of the solitary vireo or black-capped vireo. What really sets this vireo apart is its song.

Described in the Peterson Field Guide as a “languid warble,” it inspired this lovely quote by W.L. Dawson, writing in 1923, to be included in “The Birds of North America” species account:

“Fresh as apples and as sweet as apple blossoms comes that dear, homely song from the willows.”

As are other vireos, warbling vireos are tireless singers, even singing while on the nest, according to the BNA. Both males and females sing.

Further down the trail from the vireo, a house wren added its song to the avian chorus. I saw it perched conspicuously on a shrub’s bare twig as it sang several repetitions of its gurgling, energetic song. Suddenly, it dropped out of sight into the tall grass below, perhaps to forage for spiders, beetles, or other small, slow-moving bugs. After a minute, it returned to the exact same spot on its perch to resume singing, and I smiled.

Still farther along, in the willows and other deciduous trees bordering a small pond, I heard the characteristic “fitz-bew!” call of the willow flycatcher. This bird belongs to a group of four other flycatchers in the genus empidonax (called “empids” for short in birding circles). All are maddeningly, virtually impossible to tell apart by sight; the only sure way to do so is by sound. Luckily, they all have very distinct calls.

All of the birds mentioned above can also be found here in Maine, even the red-bellied woodpecker, which apparently has been expanding its range steadily northward.

Now, an update on the ospreys in South Portland. I believe the Spring Point osprey eggs have hatched.

Early this evening I’d gone down to the Point; the gray, overcast sky hung low and a fine mist surrounded me. I walked out on the pier and observed an osprey on the nest. All was quiet except for the gentle susurrus of waves on the beach, and the odd moaning and muttering voices of the common eiders resting and preening on the barely submerged, seaweed-covered rocks.

A new voice made itself heard: the quiet whistles of the other adult osprey returning with a meal. Alighting on the nest’s rim, this parent began tearing off bits of the food item (likely a fish) and appeared to bend down into the nest with each beakful. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard high-pitched, raspy begging calls coming from the nest-bowl.

Stay tuned….

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