Add bird listening to your looking

I was standing near the shore at John Wayne Marina one morning last spring, scanning the water for birds, when I heard a faint voice behind me saying "quick, three beers." I scanned the conifers on the hill above the marina. Somewhere in the foliage sat an olive-sided flycatcher, my first of the season, but I couldn't see him.

Moreover, he didn't belong there as we normally find this bird in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. I wondered if he was just stopping over on his way further north to breed.

I'm continually fascinated by the variety of birds around me. Being able to identify some of them by their voices enriches my experience, as I would fail to spot - much less identify - many of the small birds dispersed in protective foliage.

Some of those voices lend themselves to description by English phrases.

"See me ... pretty, pretty me" is the song of a white-crowned sparrow, an abundant breeder locally. I hear it almost everywhere in and around Sequim this time of year.

"Oh poor me" is the song of a golden-crowned sparrow, sung in mournful tones falling in pitch with each note. Last fall, on our Wednesday bird walks, we sometimes laughed as first-year golden-crowneds struggled to learn to sing their song correctly. Soon these sparrows will fly north to breed in British Columbia up through southern Alaska before returning in fall to winter here.

As spring progresses,

we'll listen for other tell-tale voices such as the raspy "fitz-bew" of a willow flycatcher. Many birds, however, lack a voice so easily captured in a memorable phrase. So we listen for other tell-tale sounds, such as the high, squeaky voice of a bald eagle, the nasal "ank" of a red-breasted nuthatch, the chatter of a belted kingfisher or a Steller's jay and the cooing of a dove.

When I moved here five-plus years ago, a single

mournful coo told me a mourning dove was nearby. But with the subsequent influx of Eurasian collared-doves into the Sequim area - no, I didn't bring them with me - that no longer suffices. Now I listen for several notes to distinguish between the monotone pattern of collared-dove coos and the typical pitch changes in mourning dove coos.

Song sparrows, which are abundant locally, each learn one to two dozen songs. That rules out our memorizing their songs. Instead, we listen for their characteristic pattern - several notes on the same pitch, then a trill followed by a short jumble of notes.

Although American robins have many voices, their up-and-down chirrupy song is familiar to most of us. Black-headed grosbeaks sing a fast-paced version of that song, sounding like an overly caffeinated robin.

Paying close attention to avian voices can lead to new insights.

Males are the singers, to establish breeding territories and attract mates. Female voices are restricted to innate calls, such as clucks and chips. Female purple finches are an exception, however, having a song of their own. While researching them for this article, I discovered that experts lack a good understanding of this phenomenon. In the birding bible, Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "Birds of North America," experts say that female purple finches only sing while on nests.

That's wrong.

Once, on a Wednesday bird walk, we saw one singing from a bush. And a year or so later, I saw one singing from a similar perch in Carrie Blake Park. No nearby nest was visible in either case. I doubt that these were isolated instances. More likely, I suspect, these female singers are either simply overlooked or not identified with enough confidence to risk saying so. Now that you know you won't be ridiculed for saying you saw a female bird singing, let me know if you encounter a singing female purple finch.

I encourage you to enhance your enjoyment of birds by learning a new song or two. Some people find recordings helpful; they are available online and on CDs and tape. Better yet, come join us this spring on one of our weekly Wednesday bird walks. If you would like a broader exposure, Bob Boekelheide, our local birding expert and director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center, offers a Birding by Ear class. It meets on Thursday mornings for five weeks, starting April 23.

Dave Jackson is "Our Birds" series editor and Web master. Send comments to him at or 683-1355.

Olympic Peninsula Audubon meets at 7 p.m. today, April 15, at the Dungeness River Audubon Center, 2151 W. Hendrickson Road.

The Birdathon fundraiser is Saturday, May 9. Details are on Web site

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