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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Code of Silence

Anxiety builds as I enter the local wooded preserve. It is cold and brown, with leafless boughs and only a scattering of emergent vegetation on the forest floor. My route traces over a network of abandoned horse-trails, once my former stomping grounds as a youth. Just ahead on the path several Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers hop about in search of food. A Swainson's Thrush swoops down to join them. I slow my pace so as not to alarm them and proceed to set up my camera. I had anticipated ideal shooting conditions due to a delay in the budding of the trees - less cover. Unfortunately, there had been a similar response with the neotropical migrants, as well. Their numbers were down, and activity was limited solely to the terra firma - the "songsters" were grounded. It soon became quite evident that this low-pressure system would take its toll.

Catkins of oak and maple dangle alongside emergent leaves to capture the first rays of light. It is a week after the annual Spring Bird Count, but the near freezing temperatures continue. Normally this trail would have its fringes laced with hawthorns dressed in delicate pinks and whites. The upper canopy has not had sufficient time to open its buds so its leaves could develop and therefore, neither has its complimentary host of insects. I continue to listen for my subjects, but there is no song. A shuffling of leaves draws my attention to an Ovenbird, indifferent to my presence. I prepare my equipment and soon realize that the area is cluttered with warblers. To see such warblers as Golden-winged, Cape May, Pine, and the canopy

king, Blackburnian, searching under leaves on the forest floor was mind boggling! The viewing screen delights in this assemblage of color as the whir of the motor drive quickly expires roll after roll of film.

First, the distinctive "chip" of a foraging Black-throated-green grabs my attention.

Then it's a Nashville Warbler hopping

between emergent Spring Beauties. I

shuffle back to the main trail to find the brilliantly painted blues and yellows of Magnolia, Pine and Myrtle's diligently searching for food. There came moments that these avian jewels were dancing around the legs of my tripod! It seems that the openness of these bare stretches of dirt allow easier access to the limited supply of food. The laisse faire attitude of these hungry little balls of feathers is a photographer’s dream - but I soon succumb to its dim reality. Tucked in the base of a tree hollow, an Ovenbird failed to find satisfactory shelter to awaken to another blustery morn. I receive news of fellow birders reporting large numbers of road kills due to the unusual low- level foraging strategy adopted by these hungered masses.

The robust Waterthrush is the only bird that breaks into song today. It forages

among an assemblage of logs, branches, and other forest debris along the rivers edge.

He is joined by Yellowthroats, Myrtle's, Redstarts and Orioles. The birds are relatively silent. Only the occasional chip," whistle, or "tsip" discloses their location. It seems that the added

stress of seeking food to refuel the energy stores exhausted in migration has risen to another level. Since the caloric output to forage and keep warm is increased due to a lack of available sustenance, a new survival strategy must be adopted. Not only is the playful antics of a territorial chase snubbed, but so is its accompanying chorus. The delightful blend of warblers buzzing amid the tops of trees with the enchanting lilt of thrushes and vireos, has gone unpronounced. The expectant cacophony of music by these mingling migrants has come to a virtual standstill - to refrain from song means to survive

Frost melts ever so slowly as I attempt to record this spring-time phenomena. I am greeted by a flash of white and black furtively circling the trunk of a tree. The resident Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are now joined by Black-and-White Warblers and "creepers," an unusual combination for this time of year in the Midwest. As I proceed, the antiphonal singing of cardinals is heard along the wooded edge. Maybe this is a good omen. A startled Wood Thrush flees amid a flurry of whip-like calls and as I follow it deeper into the forest, I hear the ascending ring of the "teacher" bird! Crossing into a small stand of oaks, I yearn to hear the warbled robin-like song of a tanager or the trill of a Blackpoll.

I glimpse a flash of color from the corner of my eye that reveals a Great-crested Flycatcher. Normally an upper canopy hawker, it has lowered itself to feed bluebird-like from a selected vantage point in search of prey.

The almost indiscernible Empidonax species plus the mid-canopy (Eastern Wood) Pewees have also adopted this feeding method.

My daily excursions provide ideal photo opportunities with such cooperative creatures. Since I cannot identify the species by their unique songs, I have learned to distinguish a good number of individuals by utilizing their "call" notes. Several are quite obvious, the most well

known may be the metallic "eek" of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak or the sharp "tick" of a Purple Finch flying overhead. The Yellow-rumped Warbler's distinctive "chek" and the emphatic "chik!" of the Northern Waterthrush are the more recognizable calls of the warblers.

Each day I found myself decoding more of this avian dialect.

The diminutive Ruby-crowned Kinglet protests with a "djit djit," whereas a "djee djee" discloses the presence of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. A drawn out "tseeet," encountered among the forest floor, is generally the more common White-throated Sparrow.

The call of the White-crowned Sparrow is very similar, but it is less common and prefers the forest borders. Lincoln's and Swamp Sparrows respond with a more buzzy "tzee," and it does not have the latter's deeper tonal quality. Now the real confusion begins when you consider the fact that practically every species is at ground level. I determined that several higher pitched "tsee" calls were not warblers, but from a small gathering of Black-capped Chickadees, and only after visual cues: bouncing flight and distinctive silhouette. It becomes too difficult to distinguish similar sounding warblers such as: Black-and-White, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Blackburnian and Tennessee, to name a few.

Nashville Warblers, however, have a metallic "tsick" quality but can be easily confused with a Wilson's, whereas a bubble-like "tek" denotes a Black-throated-Green.

A sudden “tchip" discloses the fan-spreading Hooded Warbler whereas more subdued "dit" reveals a wonderfully adorned Black-throated Blue. When I hear a raspy “chup," I am prepared for the bright yellow and olive attire of a Yellowthroat, still, this late migration may reveal a Hermit Thrush. Of the thrushes, Swainson's was the most prevalent. When disturbed or excited it would respond with a quick "whit," much stronger than the meek, asthmatic "wheet" of a fleeting Ovenbird, but easily distinguishable from the sharp "spit!" of an Indigo Bunting. A ruffled Cape May remains silent, but its loud plumage under a setting sun, begs to have its picture taken!

Every day I look forward to this new challenge of pinpointing a "tseep," "whit" or "chip" to the more familiar plumage of its host. A flat "jip!" from the forest edge has me seeking a Mourning warbler. "Ahh, nice, just stand still for a moment. Great!" I got the shot.

As I organize my gear, a rowdy mob of Blue Jays begin scolding and proceed to harass an agitated `Sharpie' (Sharp-tailed hawk). Quickly, I lock up the car and scramble across the parking lot for a closer view. Before I get a chance to hop the curb, the hawk flees along with its noisy entourage hot on its tail. Suddenly, I realize I'm not alone. I listen once again, and the sound makes my pulse quicken. Hastily, I hoof it towards a nearby trail. "Where? Where?" I ask myself. Then, a few feet away, it bursts into view, "Please, please, pleased to meet 'cha!" I smile, and think to myself,

"As I am you little fella! As I am you." and the Chestnut-sided Warbler repeats once again, "Please, please.... " The joyous sound of birdsong fills the air. Flitting among the branches, a Scarlet tanager is joined by chattering orioles, setting the canopy ablaze, along with the warblers, flashing every hue imaginable; their songs complementing caroling thrushes. I pause to listen to the plethora of songs resounding from within, beckoning me to partake in its splendor. I oblige willingly. At long last, the `code of silence' has been broken.

Location: Schiller/Robinson Forest Preserves, Cook County, Illinois USA

Date: May of 1994

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