A veery in the wood

Last Saturday, the penultimate day of the annual spring census, dawned bright and blue. My list of birds had grown over the past week to more than 60 species. I grabbed my binoculars and headed down to the path that runs along the river, anxious to capture whatever sightings I could before time ran out.

Almost immediately, I was greeted by the song of a redstart from somewhere in the canopy overhead. Catbirds darted in and out, mewing from the bushes. The river ran high in the wake of recent rains, and from across the silent swirling eddies the sounds of warbling vireos came sharp and clear.

Up ahead something darted across the trail into the brush. I froze, brought my binoculars up, and focused into a tuft of trembling leaves. A black-masked yellow throat busily gleaned a twig. Momentarily, he sounded his witchety-witchety-witchety call. As I paused to record his name in my notebook, another call echoed through the wood.

Breathless, I strained to listen. There it came again, distant but unmistakable: flute-like notes, slurred together in a series of descending trills.

Carefully, I stepped along the trail, taking care to avoid snapping a branch or twig underfoot. The air was cool and clear; and when the bird sounded again, the refrain became sharper still.

I stood for several minutes, steeped in this song, and wondered at its beauty.

The song of the veery (Catharus fuscescens) has been described in various ways, each a sincere attempt to capture the refrain, each falling somewhat short of the actual performance. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports it as “a series of variations on veer, descending slightly in pitch, resonating as if whirling through a metal pipe.” Nineteenth-century observers called it “an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive.”

The best way to experience this woodland singer is to head to the forest on a clear, cool morning in spring and listen. At some point, the patient observer is sure to be rewarded.

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