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SCOTT SHALAWAY Vireos' tune gives them away



Published: Sun, May 12, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



My office sits above the garage at the bottom of the driveway. As I walk 150 feet to work each morning, irresistible sounds often lure me off course into the woods. This is especially true in May when each new day brings new discoveries.

That's how I found myself afield without binoculars. An azure sky, a rising sun, and a series of irresistible sounds lured me off the ridge.

First, it was the trill of a toad. Then a wood thrush "ee-o-layed!"on a hill side. Finally, a worm-eating warbler sang farther down the hollow. The only thing duller than this bird's drab olive and brown plumage is its insect-like trill of a song. Relying only on my ears and naked eyes, I worked hard to be sure of what I heard and saw.

A familiar sound

Then I heard a familiar sound coming from a dense rose thicket. It was loud, emphatic, and not very musical -- "Chick! Chick-a-per-wer, chick!"

"Welcome back," I replied to the white-eyed vireo.

Notorious for hiding in dense vegetation, white-eyed vireos can sometimes be coaxed into view with generic high-pitched sounds.

I pursed my lips and made a pishing sound. "Psssh! Psssh! Psssh!" No response. I waited about a minute, then I pished again. This time the vireo reacted instantly. It flew to a tall drooping rose stem and sang. I pished again, and he sang again. Then he dropped back into the thicket. He had been in the open for only about ten seconds, but that was all I needed to get a good look, even without binoculars. I noted the olive back, white throat and wing bars, and yellow markings around the eyes called "spectacles." Without binoculars, I couldn't pick up the eyes' white irises.

Though neotropical migrants, vireos are not visually flashy. Their colors, usually yellows and greens, are understated, and a vireo's bill is thicker than the needle-like bill characteristic of most warblers.

A vireo's voice, however, is usually sufficient for a positive identification. From dawn until dusk and from April through September, male vireos are the most persistent singers in the woods.

Loud and explosive

The white-eyed vireo's song is loud and explosive. After a while, it can become background noise along wooded edges and brushy old fields.

The red-eyed vireo lives in the woods and sings from the canopy. Short, whistled phrases, repeated like questions and answers for minutes at a time, have earned this bird the nickname "preacherbird." After a short pause, he resumes his monologue.

Slower, raspier phrases signal the appearance of a yellow-throated vireo, but like the rest of the family, it stays well hidden in dense foliage. This time, I try a different bird call. I kiss the back of my hand to make squeaking sounds. It needn't be too loud; birds have excellent hearing. Once again, I'm rewarded. The bird drops to a sassafras branch about 12 feet away. I see its bright yellow throat, yellow "spectacles," and white wing bars. Again, binoculars aren't necessary.

Finally, I hear another vireo singing from the tree tops. I suspect vireo because it repeats a series of phrases reminiscent of a red-eyed vireo. But the phrases are longer, slower, and more accomplished. No, these are not the short, simple phrases of a red-eye. I pish. I squeak. I wish I had binoculars. The bird continues singing,, but ignores my calls. I don't see what I am certain is a blue-headed vireo. (Name change alert: this bird was formerly called solitary vireo).

Pishing and squeaking

During the nesting season, pishing and squeaking often arouse irresistible curiosity and birds reveal themselves, if only briefly. But not always. That would make birding too easy.

Search for vireos this spring. They are among the most common and widespread migrants in the woods. Though their colors may pale in comparison with many warblers, their monotonous songs, repeated over and over, make them easy to pick out by ear. And when you think you hear a vireo, sweet talk it into view with some pishes and squeaks.

sshalaway @aol.com




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