By Bill Chaisson
This time of year, it seems like every other bird you see is carrying around a beakful of insects. Birds are on the way to feed their young, either in the nest or their begging fledglings, and are much more likely to pause in their duties to check on the potential threat posed by an intruder. The parents’ investment in their young does nothing but grow as the reproductive cycle rolls on.
Through nest building and egg laying, birds are willing to “cut bait”; they just start over, build another nest, lay more eggs. But once the eggs have hatched, it is difficult for many species of birds to begin again. The tenacity of parents’ defense of their young varies considerably from species to species. Larger songbirds like robins, mockingbirds, and kingbirds may physically attack a potential predator. Many more species will pause in their labors to give you the hairy eyeball. Their hormones are surging through their veins, and one of the messages those chemicals are sending is: protect your turf.
This past Sunday was a hot one, and the woods along the Lane River in North Sutton were quiet. Nonetheless, I saw a number of birds, simply because they alighted nearby and cocked their heads to give me the once-over. The first one to do so was a chestnut-sided warbler. Silently, he descended from the canopy and perched barely 10 feet away, slightly above eye level. Then he quickly dropped down toward the ground level, rapidly choosing three or four different perches that were successively lower and farther away from me. Then he simply disappeared.
Thirty yards down the trail, a black-throated blue warbler (another male) dropped down from above, where he had been singing in the heat with impressive energy. After having a look at me, he disappeared without a sound and did not resume singing.
Then, on a woods road I surprised something larger than a warbler, which exploded in a clatter of wings just behind me. A few seconds later a bird alighted on a branch about six feet over my head and glared down at me, her bill full of insects. It was a female scarlet tanager. She did not move, fixing me with a stare from both eyes past either side of her bill.
In all three cases, I had the strong sense that I was nearer to these birds’ nests than they wanted me to be, and I quickly moved on. I have long since stopped being one of those birdwatchers who finds it exciting to locate a bird nest by playing a game of “hot and cold” with a panicked parent. Ground-nesting birds often have a broken-wing display to lead an interloper away from the nest. Other birds simply become more agitated as you get closer and less agitated when you move away.
All of this uses up a lot of time and energy, of which these busy parents have a finite supply. Every minute they spend playing games with you is a minute during which they are not feeding their nestlings or fledglings. Every calorie they burn up in anxiety and flitting madly from limb to limb is energy they will not expend to further the future of their genes.
I walked a few yards up the woods road and spotted an ovenbird dropping down onto a horizontal limb just above the forest floor. As I watched, it hopped steadily downward to the leaf litter and then disappeared on foot. Yeesh, I thought, the whole forest is a nursery today. I turned around and went back the way I came.
Last Friday, I had a different sort of day. It was one of those days when all the birds were singing, but I couldn’t get a single look at any of them. They were far up in the treetops, and they weren’t coming down or even moving very much. I had my smartphone with me and decided to try something I hadn’t done before: go to the allaboutbirds.org site and play bird calls in the woods.
I tried the gambit first with a veery. The bird was repeatedly emitting its vaguely liquid call note somewhere out of sight. I tried playing its song for it. Almost immediately it flew down to a limb about 20 feet away from me and sat there flicking its tail irritably. I then played its call and the bird instantly dive-bombed me. Not wanting to further rile the poor thrush, I moved on.
Elsewhere in the forest I heard what I knew was a black-throated blue warbler, the same one described above. Earlier in the spring I had seen him throwing back his head and sing, so I knew his address and his style. When I played the available recorded songs, they didn’t sound like this New Hampshire bird. The recorded birds were from Ontario and New York. I could hear that the songs were different, but my New England bird apparently couldn’t understand the accents of the Canadian and New Yawk birds; he didn’t respond at all.
I then tried the experiment with a chestnut-sided warbler, but again the recorded songs were obviously different from what I was hearing overhead, and again I got no response from the live bird.
Finally, as my phone battery was almost dead, I played back the simple, pulsing si-si song of the black-and-white warbler to a singing male. His response was quick and different from that of the veery. He came down to a branch just above where I was standing and about 20 feet away and sang back at the recording, but louder and longer.
My rule in all these escapades is to distract and upset the birds as little as possible. They are tightly wound little creatures, and there is a limit to how much pressure I will exert just for the pleasure of getting a look at them.
Bill Chaisson, who has been a birdwatcher since age 11, is a former editor of the Eagle Times. He now works for the Town of Wilmot and lives in Sutton.