Behind the Music

Northern parula warbler. Photograph by Larry Master

Tom Dudones, who lives down the street, has counted 156 species of birds on the grounds of the Saranac Lake High School. It’s a tally accumulated from 30 years of Saturday morning walks in all seasons. Two Saturdays ago he had a black-throated green warbler, northern parula, yellow warbler, ovenbird and a black-and-white warbler.

“The only one I actually saw was the black-and-white,” he told me. “Everything else was by sound.”

By this weekend, Dudones says, almost every migratory bird that flies to the Adirondacks to breed will have arrived. The morning chorus is layered, and as the trees leaf out even experts need a refresher on which warbler says what.

Dudones uses the USGS’s Pawtuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter to jump his memory. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is another good online resource. I’m no expert, but every spring I replay my CD of Wild Sounds of the North Woods (1997), recorded by Lang Elliott.

Listening for birds has opened the world to me in a way that watching them never has. My childhood entailed antsy hours of waiting as my dad and brother looked for specks in the sky, flits in the trees, or that one rare gull among hundreds of common ones.

Birding by ear is much more rewarding for impatient people. You don’t have to sit quietly in the forest. You can bird as you do yard work, ride a bike, paddle a canoe.

My husband and I live in the village of Saranac Lake. From our back door we can see the perpetual blue light of a Pepsi machine and hear traffic on Route 3. Out front we see Morgan’s Trash Service and Section-8 apartments. But that doesn’t make this half-acre any less interesting to me than the deep woods of the Five Ponds Wilderness.

Every year northern parulas nest in one of our two spruces. The infinitely patient Wesley Lanyon, a former curator of ornithology with the American Museum of Natural History, taught me the warbler’s song in the 1990s during a survey at Spring Pond Bog, a Nature Conservancy boreal preserve north of Tupper Lake. He described the parula’s zipper riff as a bubble rising to the surface, a mnemonic that stuck. It inspired me to try to learn every bird I hear.

Chipping sparrows (an even, high trill) nest in a clearing downhill from our house. Black-capped chickadees (seen as often as heard) collect clumps of hair shed by our dog. We shoo juncos (also trillers) out of the shed. Hairy woodpecker chicks complained hungrily from the dead aspen behind the garage until we cut it down a few years ago; now they live down the street. Robins nest next door.

Other regular visitors are red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, white-throated sparrows, song sparrows, pileated woodpeckers and red-eyed vireos. Broad-winged hawks and chimney swifts cry and chatter across the sky, and crows drop in as if they own the place. In the unbroken woods across the street, on Dewey Mountain, we hear barred owls, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, hermit thrushes, ovenbirds, winter wrens, black-throated green, yellow-rumped and black-and-white warblers and other reels I have not learned with confidence. Yet.

Last year I met Gail Miller, who lives on the farm where she grew up, near Lake Ontario. She told me both of her parents were aware of every bird in their hayfields. “I asked my mother once, ‘Mom, how did you learn all of this?’” Miller recalled. “And she was very negative about our education currently. She would say, ‘Gail, I don’t understand how you supposedly have a good education and you don’t know what the fossils are on the bay and you don’t know what the birds are that you are passing.’ So she taught me all of that, but we never learned any of it in school.”

We have lost the connection to generations who had a general familiarity with the world around them. I have come to realize I was lucky that my parents pointed out plants and animals to my brothers and me. It makes even walking down the street entertaining. “Drama,” my father would say as he watched a spider wrap a fly in the garage window. He liked to go to a certain restaurant in Lake Placid because the parking lot had ants he hadn’t yet identified.

So I don’t find it surprising that Tom Dudones has recorded 156 birds at the high school. I do find it regrettable that most of us can’t name them.

“Who will tell us what we are losing, when we can no longer name all the pieces?” asks the lepidopterist and author Robert Michael Pyle in a 2001 Orion article, “The Rise and Fall of Natural History.” “What we know, we may choose to care for. What we fail to recognize, we certainly won’t.”

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