March 2, 2013

Allen Afield: On the wings of a dove, signs of approaching spring

By KEN ALLEN

In central Maine, a wonderful, annual occurrence begins in early March as birds start calling more after a somewhat quiet winter, and folks awake at dawn particularly notice them, but sounds continue all day. Those of us listening really key into the multiple birding events, as this drab month unfolds toward April.

Usually, mourning doves kick of the parade with their mournful, hollow "coo-ah, cooo, cooo, cooo" that begins at dawn. Less observant types hear the call as "who-ah, who, who, who," a question rather than an avian promise of procreation.

When I was young, the "cooo" series over and over sounded monotonous, but now I welcome mourning doves each early spring. They foreshadow the end of winter, so after hearing the dove's first calls, I think, melodramatically I might add, that I've survived another Maine winter.

Not everyone appreciates mourning doves at dawn's first gray light, but the repetitive calls strike so many of us as one of the more delightful spring offerings. A late winter storm may push the new season back and snow still covers the ground in shaded areas, but this dove -- and I know this is corny -- shouts spring. And the calls pick up as April nears.

Black-capped chickadees and smaller flocks of tufted titmice frequently visit my feeders now, and chickadees really catch my ear. The male calls "fee-bee," two distinctly clear sounds, and the "bee" is softer than the "fee," an example of a musical trochaic monometer foot -- if folks are into poetry.

Both genders call "chick-a-dee-dee" with multiple variations in the number of "dee" syllables, sounds denoting flocking and predator-warning calls. Such a melodious collection of syllables rolling through the still air also shouts spring to those of us listening.

Researchers claim that four distinct "chick-a-dee" calls denote flock-movement or threats from approaching predators, and the sounds are complex and predictably show the seriousness of whatever danger threatens the flock.

For instance, if a small, menacing buteo or accipiter glides toward a flock, the call has a shorter interval between "chick" and "dee" and often has more "dees" than a less serious danger -- say a ground-bound mammal.

A quick point about black-capped chickadees. The male's "fee-bee" sounds more well enunciated than a phoebe's call, which also received its name from uttering "fee-bee" -- or the much older English spelling of "phoebe."

Tufted titmice create another spring sound that picks up toward April and one of its calls intrigues me -- "peter, peter, peter." If no one is close enough to hear me talking to myself, I might ask, "Peter who?" The other call is "here, here, here," both almost a chanting sound.

Black-capped chickadees may travel together with small groups of tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets.

White-breasted nuthatches make a "yank-yank" call, and Peterson adds "who, who, who, who" to this species' sounds. A red-breasted nuthatch also says "yank-yank," but it's more nasal and tinny.

Brown creepers have a soft, lisping call similar to a golden-crowned kinglet. This creeper says "see-see-see-sisi-see," distinct enough.

Brown creepers have a quirk that interests me. They ascend a tree trunk in spirals while feeding upward, and then they fly to the bottom of another trunk to start their foraging climb again.

On the other hand, after a feeding white-breasted nuthatch ascends a trunk to feed, it descends the same trunk headfirst while feeding back down, before flitting to another tree.

Golden-crowned kinglets are familiar to deer hunters into watching perching birds. We hear this species high, wiry call "see-see-see," a series that rises, a sound heard in dark hemlocks on a cold November day.

Dark-eyed juncos are common around my feeders in winter, and the species' call, a trill, sounds similar to chipping sparrows, the latter also a familiar visitor in my yard, but the sparrow visits from spring through fall. The junco's trill is a little more musical, though, and it has a tinkling quality. This bird also makes a "tzeet" call in flight.

As March moves along, we hear more morning calls from arriving migratory birds, and no matter how many decades I listen, the new birds make me think with great joy that I haven't heard that sound for months. The calls vary, and one or two may be unfamiliar, sending me to my library to rummage through Peterson, Audubon or Sibley guidebooks.

Yes, birdwatching keeps us busy all year -- but particularly now.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

KAllyn800@yahoo.com

 

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