The music and rhythm of the year
The music of the birding calendar begins in silence. For as the new year begins, the deep layers of snow muffle the world around us as if all life is asleep and waiting to be awakened in spring.
But that is not entirely truthful. While the diversity of birds is at its lowest point during the winter, it does not mean that the music is only found in the whistle of a cold wind, or that it has stopped altogether. Instead is it often subtler – found in the chatter of Black-capped Chickadees and the robotic calls of Red-breasted Nuthatches. Our resident boreal species are likewise understated, meaning birders in search of Boreal Chickadees and Black-backed Woodpeckers in some of our coniferous forests, such as those around Sabattis Bog, must pay attention to their nasal chatter and soft tapping.
These can be echoed by the quiet calls of inquisitive Canada Jays which may suddenly burst out loudly, boisterously breaking the silence. Such strident music can also be heard in the changing trills of singing White-winged Crossbills or the sharp notes of Red Crossbills, present in some years in response to food availability. The music of winter can be heard in our towns too, in the incessant activity and twitter of a flock of Common Redpolls, or the sweet tunes of Pine Grosbeaks and the trills of Bohemian Waxwings, here to dine on fruit.
A changing melody and pattern
And then the melody changes. The transition is slow at first, the product of longer days and a warming sun beginning a new rhythm on the landscape — drip, drip, drip. It is the tapping pattern of melting snow and ice. Soon the tune includes the sound of swollen streams and fast-flowing water as the world softens toward spring.
The wintering birds like Black-capped Chickadees and Brown Creepers soon pick up the cadence and add in their spring songs, only to become silent again when winter again reasserts its dominance. But the song of spring will eventually break through, and species like Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds show enough confidence in that fact to migrate north and add their raucous calls to the music, even as the snow still covers the landscape.
The ice on our lakes begins to recede and the tune is taken up by the whirring wings of migrating ducks. which seem to drop in almost immediately once open water appears as if they knew it was coming. Any species of duck found in the North Country can be found during spring migration, but many of them will not linger for long, meaning we birders must be outside as often as we can be in order to find them.
The melody of April then becomes the ringing songs of Dark-eyed Juncos and the whistles of White-throated Sparrows. They are joined by a harmony of others – including Fox, Vesper, Chipping, Savannah, and Lincoln’s Sparrows, even as lingering American Tree Sparrows offer their last twinkling notes of the winter before heading north. The cadence is then taken up by the staccato drumming of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, the fluty songs of Hermit Thrushes, and the low pulsing throb of American Bitterns calling from area marshes.
April is also a great time of year to watch for migrating raptors, and birders can find the music in the high-pitched calls of Broad-winged Hawks or the loud cries of Red-shouldered Hawks. At night the melody is joined by Barred Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls whose hoots and toots pierce the quiet, and still-cold blackness.
The music of May and summer
Soon the music is in the colors of newly arrived Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, the warbling songs of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and the complex trills of Winter Wrens. It picks up its pace, growing in strength as it does, and we watch and listen in expectation as the movement builds, and May breaks on our ears with a chorus of White-crowned Sparrows on their way north. The crescendo continues with arriving Black-and-white Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Mourning Warblers, Blackpoll Warblers, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Least Flycatchers, and Bicknell’s Thrushes, as the symphony climaxes in an outburst of song and color.
Some of these migrants, such as Tennessee and Bay-breasted Warblers, will pass through the region, while others stay to offer us the music throughout the summer. And so June is a tuneful month whether you explore the deciduous forests, the coniferous forests, the mountains, the lakes, or the streams of the region. But as we advance into July, we notice that the birds begin to hush their songs – the music once again becoming more subtle, an interlude before it crescendos again.
This escalation of sound and activity begins with the chips of recently fledged young birds, and before we know it August has gathered small ensembles of mix-species flocks – diverse collections of birds which infuse life in the forest as they feed incessantly in preparation for their long journey south. Such flocks are an exciting miscellany of birds, and birders can sift through them as if trying to find a hidden prize. It makes August one of the best times of year to bird the Adirondacks.
The fall performance
But the winds of late summer and early fall add their voices to the annual concert and they take these flocks away, leaving us with a smaller set of musicians such as Golden-crowned Kinglets, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. But they too are soon harmonized by an influx of sparrows, an arrangement set to the backdrop of bright autumn leaves. Once again the skies above send our raptors heading south, and our lakes, which hosted nesting Ring-necked Ducks and Common Loons during the summer, welcome back the tired wings of an assortment of aquatic species, their whistling flights once again adding to the symphonic movement.
The notes are also played by the flight calls of American Pipits, Snow Buntings, and Pine Siskins, as we find our first Northern Shrike of the season listening to the music from the top of a small tree. The trills of Bohemian Waxwings are added back into the arrangement, as are those of White-winged and Red Crossbills. The sound of the blustery winter wind blows across the landscape, and the snow begins to pile deeper and deeper on the ground, once again muffling the world. But the music is still there — it is just quietly beginning again.