A Patchwork Quilt

I thought about titling this: “A Mishmash.” But then I thought better. Who’d read something called “A Mishmash,” anyway—sort of like: Who’d consider shopping at a place called “The Dump”? (As it turns out, many do.) So I decided on what I hope will be the more alluring title above. Which means that this blog won’t be as essay-like as the others, but instead will be a literary patchwork quilt.

Signs of Spring, Cont’d

I wrote about signs of spring in my recent blog “There Were Giants.” I wrote there that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were approaching the Gulf Coast. Well, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have now reached North Carolina. What’s more—Ospreys are closing in on the state of  New Jersey, and eaglets have hatched both in Virginia and in Maryland. Great Horned Owlets have hatched in Virginia, as well. And since we’re talking about birds of prey and signs of spring, we need to note that spring hawk watches like the College Creek Hawkwatch are now officially underway.

Closer to home, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and many others are singing their primary songs, and some American Goldfinches are in full breeding plumage. And then there are scattered reports of Red-shouldered Hawks building nests, Killdeer sitting on eggs, and Northern Cardinals munching on flower blossoms.

Killdeer sitting on eggs
Killdeer sitting on eggs

Above is a photo of a female Killdeer, or possibly male Killdeer, brooding on a nest. The nest with 4 darkly mottled and nearly invisible eggs is in a shallow depression in a rotting railroad tie in the Money Point section of Chesapeake, VA. The track is abandoned, though there’s a live track (and heavy industry) nearby. It’s interesting to note that Killdeer are early nesters, that they prefer open-area sites near water, and that they prefer slightly raised sites (like old railroad beds) that provide them with better views of their surroundings. It’s also interesting to note that like a number of other species (not including American Wigeon), they’re amazingly tolerant of human activity.

Ospreys are tolerant of human activity, too. I wrote in “Birds Don’t Have Teeth” that the use of DDT wiped out many Ospreys, but that the species has recovered, owing in part to its adaptable nature. It now often builds its nest in close proximity to humans and on man-made structures like nesting platforms, channel markers, and communication towers.

Here’s a distant photo of a newly-arrived male bringing supersized nesting material to a channel marker in the Elizabeth River.

Osprey delivering nesting material
Osprey delivering nesting material

As he approached, his mate was waiting. And she was vocalizing to beat the band.

Of course, there are other signs of spring, beside all the above. A new baseball season is underway (woo-hoo!), March Madness continues apace, the Virginian-Pilot is running stories about the upcoming blue crab harvest, and my wife has hung the forsythia wreath on our front door. In addition, short sleeve shirts are making an appearance once again, and there’s increased activity on many of the local docks.

Gentleman fishing from a dock


I wrote these words in my late February blog, “There Were Giants“: “A birdsong groundswell is underway, and ‘the season of singing has come.’ We’re transitioning from winter’s relative silence to spring’s louder and lustier singing and calling.” Louder and more elaborate singing is a hallmark of spring and the days leading up it.

While doing some research on birds using “Google Scholar,” an approach I’d recommend, I stumbled across this delightful paragraph in a manuscript entitled, Avian Circadian Organization: A Chorus of Clocks, written by Vincent M. Cassone, Ph.D. He describes spring mornings and the “dawn chorus” much better than I can.

Each morning, and especially in the spring, we are greeted by a cacophony of small birds singing a dawn chorus. In eastern North America, spring mornings are sometimes defined by the merry roundelay of the American robin, Turdus migratorius, the varied staccato whistles of the Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, the hey-hey of the white-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis, or even the cheery chirping of the introduced house sparrow, Passer domesticus. In the backdrop, we may hear the doleful ooh-wah-hoo-hoo of the aptly named mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, as the bass section above croons with the honking of migrating Canada geese, Branta canadensis.

Now, I don’t have a recording of the song of the Passer domesticus or any of the other aforementioned, but I do have a short recording of one of the “loudest songs per volume,” the song of the Thryothorus ludovicianus (Carolina Wren).

Here also is a fairly recent photo of one. You can almost picture it bobbing up and down in the grass.

Carolina Wren on the ground
Carolina Wren

Dr. Cassone also writes in the piece above that birds are like us in 2 significant ways: they are diurnal (which most of them are) and “they exhibit cognitively complex social interactions.” That reminds me of something I recently threw together and posted to the Facebook Group, “Birding Virginia.” I, too, make reference to the similarities between birds and humans. “OK. Here’s my take. We crave a connection to the natural world, the wilderness. We look out through our windows or go outdoors. We see trees, bushes, berries, flowers, insects, the occasional mammal, etc. They’re beautiful, or at least interesting, but we don’t connect with them. They’re not like us. We could look for bears or foxes, or otters, or whales, or such-like, but we’d have to spend hours and search far and wide to find them. But we readily and easily see birds, and they’re like us (let me count the ways). And we connect with them! And we connect with the natural world, the wilderness, through them.”

Recording Bird Songs and Calls

I’ve provided recordings of a few bird songs and calls in this and in earlier blogs. I’m reminded now of a question that a woman named Tiffany recently posed to members of Birding Virginia: “Where do I even begin learning the individual calls/songs per bird? I am really just trying to stick with my backyard birds right now, but it seems so overwhelming. I can usually identify a cardinal’s regular song, but that is about it.” Others on the forum offered great advice. Here was my response.

“Tiffany, I’ve found that the best way to learn the calls and songs is by listening to CDs. I actually carry around the Eastern Region Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs 3-CD set in my truck and listen to it often. Apps are great, but you can only listen to one isolated vocalization at a time. With the CD set, I can listen to all the warblers, or all the thrushes, or all the sparrows at one time. I can compare and contrast. I can repeat, go back, go forward, move past species that aren’t local, etc. Another thing you might consider is getting a recorder and shotgun mic, and start recording. I often use a Tascam DR-05 with a Polsen SCL-1075 mic with a windscreen attached. Recording birds, playing back those recordings, and then studying the spectrograms, is an incredibly powerful way to learn birds’ vocalizations. Good luck. When you begin to master this stuff, you can go anywhere. And even if you can’t see a single bird, you’ll be able to confidently ID almost every single one.”

And This Just In

Here’s a magical bird collage, courtesy of birder, photographer, realtor and proud mom, Betty Sue Cohen. I’ve argued that many are drawn to bird watching because of birds’ visual appeal. I begin my “Why Do You Bird” survey with these words: “What is it about birding that seizes your interest and claims your time? Is it the aesthetics of birding?” Betty Sue makes a strong case for the aesthetics of birding here.

bird collage
Virginia birds patchwork quilt

Quip, Question, Quote

“The ebb and flow of birds in our changing seasons is part of what makes birding so appealing. We seem to be constantly saying hello, good luck, see you later, welcome back, good-bye, or see you in Florida, Costa Rica, or Argentina. It is like a constant stream of old friends coming and going from all compass directions. Every once in a while, a special guest shows up, offering only its rare presence but receiving our full attention.” The words of legally blind writer Martha Steele from her article “Winter Birding” in the February 2019 issue of Bird Observer, a bimonthly journal about birding.



2 thoughts on “A Patchwork Quilt

  1. Very interesting and well written article, Dave! And, as always, love the photos–yours and the others.
    Sincerely, Marlene


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