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Give a Listen

Common Loon

You can’t always see them

By Brian Morin | July/August 2019

Listening to bird song is one of the joys of life. Whether it is a Robin welcoming us to a new day or the fluted notes of a Wood Thrush signing off for the evening, we have a wealth of songs to enliven our spirit. While we can also enjoy watching these songsters in action, not all birds are so cooperative. Some are more secretive, spending most of the time hidden from our gaze.

This is especially true when it comes to marshes. A sea of cattails hides a variety of species, some of which are seldom seen at all. Chief among them are the rails. Virginia and Sora rails are small birds that prefer to walk through the vegetation rather than taking to the air, helping them to stay out of the prying eyes of raptors. The Virginia Rail is heavy bodied with a long bill and long toes for walking on aquatic vegetation. They are funny birds that may surprise us with a brief look as they scoot quickly across an open area of the marsh. I’ve had some success drawing them out by tapping two stones together “tick-tick …tick-tick…” If you are lucky, they could run right up to you.

Common Gallinules are larger than rails but duck-like in appearance with gray plumage and a bright red yellow-tipped bill. They too, can walk across aquatic vegetation with their long toes, but they can also be seen swimming. They don’t shun open water, but more often than not you will only hear them uttering a variety of odd calls — clucks, whinnies, yelps and squawks. These are sounds that might conjure up memories of movies set in the bayous of the American South.

Stepping back from the marsh and into woodlots, you will discover that during the summer, when foliage is full, birds can be exceedingly hard to spot, often giving us no more than a casual glimpse. One of the toughest ones to find is the Scarlet Tanager. Looking more like a bird of the tropics, with a blood-red body and jet-black wings, this ‘black-winged red bird’ as I like to call it, is virtually invisible. Because it spends much of its time high in the canopy of the deciduous forest, it is difficult to locate. On top of that, the tanager is a ventriloquist, projecting its raspy Robin-like song at a distance, which serves to protect this dazzling beauty from any that might try to track it down. It does an exquisite job of fooling birders. In fact, locating one by call alone is virtually impossible. You will need to see some movement.

Because the forest is so dark in the summer, most birds become a challenge to locate, which is why long-time observers do much of their birding by ear at this time. It saves a lot of effort ‘beating the bushes’, so to speak, in search of unusual quarry and eliminates unnecessary tracking for common species. But even familiar birds like warblers, vireos, buntings and thrushes can be hard to spot.

Scarlet Tanger

Perhaps the most common woodland sound is the call of the Red-eyed Vireo, an olive-green and white bird a little larger than a warbler. It sings a monotonous series of broken slurred notes throughout the day, a song worth learning so you can take this off your list of mystery birds. The Veery, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-throated Sparrow and others chime in with their own songs, but these too, tend to shun the spotlight and remain in the shadows, a frustrating experience for those wishing to identify what they are hearing.

One call worth highlighting is that of the Common Loon. If you live near a lake or river, have a cottage or are camping, then you have likely heard one of the most iconic sounds in nature, the cry of the loon. It actually has four distinct calls including the crazy laugh or tremolo, which serves as an alarm call and to defend its territory. The wail is suggestive of a wolf howl and is more for conversation with other loons. The yodel is a defensive sound given only by the males and can last up to six seconds. Incredibly, it is unique for each individual. The final sound is a single-noted ‘hoot’ used to communicate with family members.

While loons can call at any time, you often hear them at dawn and dusk. You can even hear them in the middle of the night. Such experiences can generate lifelong memories and contribute to an appreciation for nature that no electronic device can deliver. That said, search The Voice of the Loon / Loon Preservation Committee to listen to one of the most remarkable sounds in all of nature and you will have an idea why we keep coming back to the wild to hear more.

Brian Morin is the publisher of Ontario Birding News, a newsletter for birding enthusiasts. He has been actively involved in watching and photographing birds in Ontario for more than 40 years.

Keep birding

Writing for Fifty-Five Plus for the past 20 years has been a great journey for me. I have enjoyed sharing both thoughts and images about my favourite pastime, and with the ever-growing curiosity about birds from all demographics. I have especially enjoyed sharing my knowledge with people in the fifty-five-plus age group. Since I joined the “50-plus club” myself a few years ago, I can relate even better to the interests of our readers, and now have more time for serious wildlife photography. My interest will continue for years to come so look forward to bringing you topics that both inform and entertain in issues to come.