Migrant birds arrivals evokes memories of excellent aunts

Published 11:53 am Thursday, April 22, 2021

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Two interesting flycatcher species are among the migrants that have returned to our area this week. The Great Crested Flycatcher has a familiar call heard in late spring and early summer in nearly every neighborhood with large trees, dense or open. “Frreep!  Frreep! … Freedom!” it calls out, sounding a little like an old-fashioned police whistle.  I’m familiar with this loud raspberry whistle frequently heard in late April and May, but I had always assumed the odd sound came from some large noisy bug like a cicada!

Once you locate the sound, look for the bird.  It is a medium-sized flycatcher, almost as big as a cardinal, and perches high in trees among open branches where it can fly out and snap up a passing bug.  It is grayish above, with a somewhat cresty head, a pale yellow or cream-colored breast, and a cinnamon-colored tail. As it flies out and back from a branch, catching insects, listen for another sound, the snap-snap-snapping of its bill.

The Eastern Kingbird also just returned.  These are seen over grass fields and open country.  They have a buzzy insect-like call, like so many birds that make their home in and over grasslands.  They are mostly dark gray, pale or whitish underneath, and cardinal-sized.  The most noteworthy field mark of the kingbird is the white border of the tail, which looks like a quarter-circle when the bird is maneuvering and the tail is fully spread.

Red-eyed and yellow-throated vireos are back. These are usually found in fairly dense, mixed low-lying woods, such as areas of Goose Creek State Park.

They have similar songs to each other, with the yellow-throated vireo singing a throatier version of the red-eye’s phrases:  “See me? — Here I am — Up high — In the tree — See me?  — Here am I — Look here — In the tree” (etc.)

The Red-Eyed Vireo’s was the first bird call I ever learned; my Aunt Dot taught me when I was in first or second grade, on a canoe trip on the Tar or some swampy tributary thereof, near Rocky Mount.

Birds and aunts are special things on the earth.  In England, another excellent aunt and I were picking our way along a very moist path in the meadowy countryside outside of watery Oxford, near a village called Standlake, and trying to avoid deep mud between the tall shrubs that nearly met over us.

A repeated soft sound imposed itself on our conscious minds, and in one instant she and I looked each at the other, recognizing that call as soon as heard:  cu-coo … cu-coo … cu-coo … Yes indeed, it was the European Cuckoo.  No field guide needed!

Our own, southern, American, species of cuckoo, the Yellow-Billed, will be back soon and uttering its hollow, distant “cupcup-cup-cup, kowwp, kowwp, kowwwlp, k-kowwlp” from dense or damp woods, especially seeming to do so when a dark heavy cloud passes in front of the sun, leading to its nickname, “Rain Crow.”

I have tried to transliterate the calls of these birds as best I can, but you can get a much better handle on them by listening to the sound recordings for each of these species at www.allaboutbirds.org.  I am sure that you will know the “freedom call” or hear it this week.

Betsy Kane is a Washington resident who enjoys the outdoors.