Field Notes Friday: Hill Country Sounds

Picture yourself in the Hill Country of Texas, enjoying a beautiful night. You’re sitting by a fire that’s reduced to embers. Your friends and family have retired for the evening. The breeze is soft and comfortable, the oaks around you dark against the clouded, moonlit sky. You’re relaxing and letting your thoughts flow where they may… and you realize you’re hearing that sound again. A sound you’ve been hearing for several nights, but decided to simply enjoy rather than identify. (Now pretend you also can’t identify these sounds – press play and listen as you read on.)

I’ve been trying to get into birding. I feel I’m making a successful entry, but I’m not as quick a study as I’d like to be. The mnemonic devices used by birders to describe calls are baffling. I don’t hear “tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle” when I hear a Carolina Wren – I hear something without English consonants (and often not matching any vowels), something whistly and tuneful but strange and inimitable. And that’s a problem – I can’t imitate bird songs with any useful degree of fidelity (*confession* I can’t whistle) so I can’t speak the songs to myself like I can Spanish words or “botanical latin” or any other language I’m trying to grasp. Buntings sound like someone’s shaking a squeaker toy (but I can’t tell Indigo from Painted – yet), Phoebes supposedly say their names (“Phoebe! Phoebe! Phoebe!”), but unless it’s a crow or a Great Blue Heron, I’m hoo-dooed by the sounds.

I’m even more baffled by the descriptions of some songs, like this one:

The song is a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles, often speeding up and ending in a slow trill.

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds

Technical! I don’t get an auditory picture in my head when I read that. And when I listen to the beautiful recordings shared in the website above, the description and my perception don’t match. I just don’t grasp the lingo yet.

But enough grousing. (Ha – grousing. Get it?) Because I’ve had a wonderful auditory experience recently, and thanks to the magic of technology, I can share it with you.

I was having the experience described above: I’d spent several days and nights with family in a new place, and had heard what I figured was a bird, but knew I had little chance to identify it, so I just decided to embrace the sounds and the not-knowing. But something amazing happened on the third night. Loving the sounds and accepting not knowing, thinking about anything and nothing, a phrase floated into my conscious mind. “Chuck will’s widow.” Hmm. Wonder where that came from, and why it came up – like an ear worm, you know? A jingle, a phrase, a bit of forgotten trivia out of nowhere. I let my thoughts drift on. But I came back to that phrase and wondered, is that a menmonic device? A bird call? …And a little later I wondered, is it also the name of a bird?

I made a recording with my phone just in case the singing stopped – because I knew I couldn’t imitate or describe the call well enough for other birders! I opened my Audubon app and looked up that weird phrase. Sure enough, it’s a bird! And then wonder of wonders, when I listened to the sound on the app, it was a match with what I was hearing in real life, in real time.

I think I’ve identified my first bird by sound.

Maybe some of those mnemonic devices are useful after all.

Did I get it right? Here’s more info on the Chuck-Will’s-Widow.

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