Monday, April 12, 2021

Sounds of spring

It's mid-April, and we still have a couple of weeks to go before any signs of a hatch at the Tompkins Square red-tailed hawk nest. It's a dull time for hawk-watching as nothing much happens at the nest unless you're lucky enough to catch parents, Christo and Amelia, switching shifts for incubation duty.

This is a typical scene at the nest right now: Amelia hunkered down, face peeking above the edge of the nest to check out the activities in the park below.

Amelia brooding

She's always watching!

Amelia brooding

While the hawks continue to brood, it's a good opportunity to tune in to other birds that are moving through the city for spring bird migration. Some are just passing through on their way north, others are settling into the area and staking out their claims to nesting territories. About two weeks ago, I noticed a dramatic increase in the sounds of the birds. Suddenly, I was hearing many new songs to indicate spring is kicking into high gear. If you spend any time outdoors (anywhere), listen closely and the voices of the birds below can be heard.

The Brown-headed cowbird has a distinctive cluck flollowed by an extremely high-pitched whistle.

Brown-headed cowbird

The Tufted titmouse makes a variety of interesting sounds, but the one I've been hearing recently is the two-tone whistle.

Tufted titmouse

One of my favorite songs belongs to the Northern Cardinal. You can hear the distinctive pew-pew-pew almost anywhere in the city.

Northern cardinal

Not as loud, but still very recognizable, is the call of the White-breasted nuthatch. Once you hear it, they're pretty easy to spot moving up or down the trunks of trees.

White-breasted nuthatch

I hadn't really noticed until recently how beautiful the color pattern is on the underside of their tails.

White-breasted nuthatch

The call of the Downy woodpecker reminds me of a broken fan belt, and their hammering is surprisingly loud for such a tiny creature.

Downy woodpecker

My favorite sparrow, the White-throated sparrow, has a melodious song that can be heard across the park. I am accustomed to their eight-syllable song, but recent research is revealing that the White-throated sparrow's tune is changing across the continent. Will the song we hear now be forgotten in the future? It's an intriguing study in bird behavior.

White-throated sparrow

My other favorite sparrow, the Chipping Sparrow, makes a mechanical trill that could be mistaken for an insect. These sparrows are tiny, and can usually be found foraging on the ground.

Chipping sparrow

There is a particular elm tree on the east side of Tompkins that is attracting American goldfinches recently. They have a sweet song that sometimes sounds like a question followed by an answer.


For me, the iconic bird song that says "Summer is on the way" is that of the Red-winged blackbird. The males of the species migrate to the nesting grounds first and battle each other for territory. Good places to see and hear them are around the Meer at the north end of Central Park, and Hammock Grove on Governors Island.

Red-winged blackbird

The other song that announces the arrival of spring and summer is that of the Song sparrow. This little bird can really belt it out, and they are often found in the same habitat as the blackbirds.

Song sparrow

When Governors Island re-opens to the public for the season on May 1, I recommend visiting Hammock Grove and listening to the cacophony of Red-winged blackbirds and Song sparrows. Both species nest there and their voices can be heard throughout the island.

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