Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bathrobe Birding

I hate birding and what it has done to my life. That is what I was thinking as my alarm went off at four this morning. My head pounding and my eyes too sore to keep open, I vaulted myself down from my loft bed, switched off my alarm, threw on a sweatshirt and a bathrobe, and climbed out my bedroom window onto the roof.

My life is a strange one, indeed.

Well, you see, most birds have this nasty habit of migrating at night. That would be fine, and would allow birders to slumber undisturbed through the night, except for their other nasty habit of calling while winging overhead.

Almost immediately I was rewarded with the plaintive heep nocturnal flight call of a Swainson’s Thrush flying overhead in the darkness. Another passed over, and another. Turns out that there was a river of thrushes migrating overhead—I estimated nearly forty flew over during the forty-minute span I was listening on the roof.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the whole operation was the utter lack of migrants other than Swainson’s Thrushes. Now, the thrushes are one of the more common passerine migrants at this time of year, but there are plenty of other species that migrate at night that should have been calling.

Actually, I lied. The strangest thing actually happened at 4:21, when my dad came out into the backyard below to walk our new puppy. A Great Horned Owl was hooting in the distance, so, in an effort to spread some owly joy, I whispered, “Dad! Hear the Great Horned Owl?” Unfortunately, from my vantage point, I couldn’t see his reaction, but the flashlight beam danced across the backyard and then the door scraped shut several seconds later. At that moment, I realized how sketchy I probably looked, a robed figure silhouetted against the sky before dawn. Later, I learned from my dad that he took my whispering to be the snarling of a coyote and beat a hasty retreat in the house to protect the well being of both himself and the puppy.

My little night-listening escapade brought forth three questions:

1) Are there any differences between the nocturnal flight calls of “Russet-backed” (C. u. ustulatus) and “Olive-backed” (C. u. swainsoni) Swainson’s Thrushes? Online recordings are scanty, and I haven’t heard the flight calls of the eastern birds since last September.

2) Why has listening for nocturnal flight calls not caught on in California? Back East, it’s the hip thing to stand out in your driveway at three in the morning and then brag on Facebook about all the sweet flyover thrushes and warblers you had. This behavior seems to be much less commonly practiced in California.

3) How does whispering sound anything at all like a coyote???

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