Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Birds: The Buzzy Song of Blackpolls

Blackpoll_warblerAs I have sailed past the half-century mark, I’ve begun to take note – usually with displeasure – of those activities that remind me that I’m getting older. Reading in dim lighting conditions is a near impossibility these days, and I avoid wearing socks as often as possible so I don’t have to acknowledge the difficulties of bending over to put them on.

Sadly, the aging process has also affected my ability to hear birdsong during spring migration. The blackpoll warbler has become especially challenging to hear.

Blackpolls are neotropical songbirds that spend the winters in northern South America and breed in the boreal forests of Canada and in our high elevation forests. The male’s formal black-and-white spring plumage includes a distinctive black cap and white cheek that is suggestive of a chickadee, but his black moustache stripe, two white wing bars, and the black streaks down the side of his white chest make him readily identifiable. Blackpolls feed on spiders and insects, and build nests made of twigs and lichens to raise their three to five young.

To those of us who pay close attention to the comings and goings of spring migrants, blackpolls have been telling an interesting story in recent years. Early in my birding life, I was always told that the arrival of blackpolls in mid- to late- May in the Northeast was the signal that spring migration was coming to a close. Because of my determination to catch sight of all the early spring migrants, I was often exhausted by the third week of May and sometimes missed out on seeing blackpolls. But recently, my birding friends and I have been noting that blackpolls have been arriving in the area earlier and earlier. We no longer think of them as late migrants but ones that arrive amid the throngs of other songbirds. Some individuals have even leap-frogged ahead of the pack to show up early in the season. Whether the shift in their timing is climate related or for some other reason, no one seems to know.

While blackpolls, in common with so many other migratory birds, appear to be suffering long-term population declines, I have found them turning up in unexpected numbers in my favorite birding sites. I don’t have any solid data to back up my observation, and perhaps it’s just that blackpoll numbers have remained relatively stable while everything else has declined, making it appear that their numbers are high. But either way, it’s a joy to see so many of them flitting about the treetops each spring.

What is not a joy, however, is that I cannot hear them sing anymore. Blackpolls sing a rapid, high-pitched buzzy song that sounds a bit like an insect trill. It’s a song that was hard for me to hear even in my younger days, but today I only hear it when the bird is right above me and no other birds are singing, which doesn’t happen often. On a typical spring morning when the blackpolls are high in the trees and a chorus of other birds is making a delightful racket, I wouldn’t know that blackpolls were there, were it not for the younger birders pointing them out to me. I hate it when the young kids show me up, but I feel better when the other old timers admit that they can’t hear the blackpolls any more, either. Or bay-breasted warblers or Cape May warblers, which have equally high-pitched songs.

I lose track of the blackpolls during the summer, and by fall migration they’re dressed in drab plumage as they make a remarkable non-stop 2,000 mile flight over the Atlantic from coastal New England to the Caribbean and on to South America. They prepare for the flight by filling up on high-energy foods to double their body mass in anticipation of flapping 20 times per second for more than 72 straight hours, losing about one-fifth of their body weight along the way. Those that haven’t bulked up enough ahead of time often don’t survive the trip. Those that do can thank the prevailing winds for directing them to their destination.

Once they land on their wintering grounds, blackpolls have plenty of time to rest and recover before making the trip north again. They rest their voices as well. They don’t usually sing again until spring, which is just as well, since I can’t hear them anyway.

Todd McLeish is an author and natural history writer. His most recent book is entitled, Norwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation:

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

One Response

  1. Todd – You need to get a “Songfinder.” For those of us who have lost our high frequency hearing, typically as in my case through exposure to loud noises, this wonderful device brings back the lost music of all those warblers, kinglets, creepers, and waxwings! Low frequency sounds (human voices, automobile traffic, owls, blue jays, etc.) are not magnified.

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