Perhaps you have had the opportunity to show a friend you have met elsewhere around your hometown. She may notice a lot of things that you’ve always taken for granted: the “noon” whistle” that sounds at four minutes after the hour, the complete absence of sidewalks, or the frequent distant sounds of planes taking off in the distance that you happen to know is actually the periodic roar of the exhaust fan at the box factory.
Roger Tory Peterson took his British friend James Fisher on a similar tour, but he didn’t show him around Jamestown, New York. They wandered the entire continent. Published in 1955, “Wild America” is a fine example of mid-century natural-history writing, with Peterson and Fisher alternately writing the narrative.
They began in Newfoundland in April 1953 and headed south. Somewhere in the Carolinas, they met the wood warblers migrating northward. Fisher was overwhelmed; there are 40 species of wood warbler in the eastern United States and all of them were singing with gusto during their spring journey northward.
“There were other sounds too: a sharp rattle like a wooden ratchet-rattler, and a ubiquitous chuck. I looked hard for these birds,” Fisher wrote, “and Roger let me hunt for them for a mile or two before slyly telling me they were mammals.”
When Fisher tracks down the rattle-maker, it is the red squirrel or chickaree, a very different creature from the mild and retiring European red squirrel. He is told, in a fine example of American hyperbole, that red squirrels are so fast that if lightning strikes a treetop, the squirrel can beat it to the ground.
“The chuck-ing came from chipmunks,” Fisher continued, “I could never spot one of these little striped ground squirrels before it spotted me …; but their bird-like noise was everywhere among the rocks and gnarled trunks.”
You don’t have to be British to have trouble distinguishing bird sounds from the vocalizations of other forest creatures. Weeks ago I was baffled by the single “hoots” I heard coming from the forest around our cabin. I thought they might be made by a long-eared owl, but lately I have heard a different drawn-out cry. It may actually be the same sound, but made relatively nearby and therefore sounding higher pitched.
At first I thought it might be a gray fox, because I am aware that they make a lot of strange sounds. Furthermore, one crossed Wilmot Center Road in front of us as we were driving back from New London one night, right around the corner from where we live. But I listened to recordings on YouTube and the calls of the gray fox are harsh and guttural, almost scratchy sounding.
The other class of animal that makes bird-like calls is now silent: the frogs. The green and bullfrogs have what we think of as “frog-like” sounds, variations on the cartoon ribbit. Leopard and pickerel frogs make sounds like little liquid growls. But the more terrestrial species like wood and spring peepers sound a lot like birds.
Wood frogs take to water to lay their eggs in vernal pools, but otherwise can be found roaming around in the damp woods more or less near water. In the spring the chorus rising from a group of them sounds like a gaggle of clucking fowl. It is a flat wat-wat sound that ends with a more rounded ut.
These fawn-colored frogs have a chocolate stripe trailing down from each eye and usually faint dark bands on the hind legs. They range well up into the boreal forests and are much studied for their ability to survive freezing temperatures by converting glycogen to glucose in their tissues, which serves as an anti-freeze. They are among the first amphibians to emerge and begin calling in the spring, which adds to the confusion with birds. You will assume it is too cold for amphibians to be about.
Spring peepers are of course tree frogs, and their calls can therefore emanate from any number of places where birds should also be. A chorus of peepers rising from a meadow doesn’t sound very bird-like; the massed vocalizations take on their own pulsating rhythmicity. There are recordings of peeper choruses on YouTube that go on for two hours and are advertised as being aids to putting either your baby or you to sleep.
However, an individual peeper here or there in the woods utters a plaintive wheet call that sounds very much like a foraging sparrow or certain warblers. It is amazing how the temperature and humidity can alter the tone and pitch of these frogs. I have chased down quite a few that I was convinced were avian. I arrive at the location of the call to find only the sound with no bird in sight. And no frog either; peepers, 1.5 inches long and varying from tan to green, are very hard to pin down.
We have relatively few frog species in the Northeast and, happily, only a couple sound like birds. Elsewhere things are a bit more diverse. I recall crawling through the rock landscape of Zion National Park in Utah at dusk looking for what I was sure was a new-to-me species of western bird and coming up completely empty. The next morning I swallowed my pride and imitated the noise for a park ranger. Her face brightened and she told me with a smile, “Oh, that’s a sheep frog.”
Bill Chaisson has been a birdwatcher from the age of 10. He is a former managing editor of the Eagle Times and now lives and works in the town of Wilmot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.