Springtime Birding with David Sibley, and more
Published: April 29, 2020
David Sibley’s hand painted portrait of a Mute Swan and cygnets. (© David Sibley)
(stream/download) as an MP3 file
A great migration is underway in the northern hemisphere, as migratory birds head north to start a family. Throughout their journeys these long-distance travelers rely on well-stocked pit-stops, like Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts. That’s where Steve Curwood meets up with ornithologist David Sibley one fine spring morning, to listen to copious birdsong and discuss the second edition of Sibley’s popular Guide to Birds.
Also, Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender, marvels at the speed and diligence with which a pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers build and maintain a nest.
CURWOOD: Hi, I’m Steve Curwood and today on the Living on Earth Podcast we’ll go birding with David Sibley, ornithologist and author of the popular Sibley’s Guide to Birds and we’ll have an essay about spring time nesting from our Explorer in Residence.
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CURWOOD: Today we take you back to five o’clock on a May morning in 2014 when we headed out to the Great Meadows National Wildlife refuge in Concord, Massachusetts, to meet up with David Sibley, author of the popular Sibley’s Guide to Birds. These marshes, lakes, and woodlands are pit stops for migrating birds heading north and home for local birds looking to find a mate, and as sunlight started to flood the sky, the dawn chorus filled the face of David Sibley with a smile.
CURWOOD: So, who are we listening to here?
SIBLEY: Ahhh, we're hearing Northern Cardinal, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Warbling Vireo, Red-winged Blackbird, Swamp Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, Common Grackle, Catbird, Common Yellowthroat, Canada Goose.
CURWOOD: Gee, I think that you probably just doubled my life list for around here.
SIBLEY: I’m hearing a Northern Waterthrush singing in the bushes right there. That chirping sound descending in pitch.
[CALLS OF NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH]
CURWOOD: A Northern Waterthrush. Let’s look at your book. Where are we to find a Northern Waterthrush?
SIBLEY: It’s one of the warblers. So it’ll be...
CURWOOD:...in the warbler section back here.
[FLIPS THE PAGE]
SIBLEY: Right here.
CURWOOD: You’ve added something I didn’t see before in your other works which is a description of what the bird sounds like. Can you read that?
SIBLEY: A song of loud of emphatic clear chirping notes generally falling in pitch and accelerating loosely paired or tripled with little variation; called a loud hard sprik rising with strong K sound; flight call a buzzy high slightly rising zip.
CURWOOD: Your descriptions are almost the way people describe wine, with a little bit of this flavor and a hint of that and all that.
SIBLEY: Yes, we do. It’s so difficult to describe in words what a bird sounds like. You end up using words like mellow and rich and liquid and sharp and it does just sound like the descriptions of taste. [LAUGHS] If the words are used consistently and used repeatedly you kind of get a sense of what each one means and you’ll learn that yes, that thrushes tend to have a liquid sound, and orioles and robins, their voices have a rich sound. It’s fun to try to come up with words to describe all these sounds.
CURWOOD: So your first book, really, so many folks see that as a gold standard for a birding guide. So why do another?
SIBLEY: As soon as the first book went to the printer back in 2000, I started taking notes and gathering information about things I wanted to change, or new things I had learned. I look at those paintings and think I could do this or that a little bit better, or add details, or add new illustrations to show different things.
CURWOOD: Well, let’s take a step out into the meadow.
SIBLEY: Alright. Let’s head down this path through the marsh here.
[FOOTSTEPS ON DIRT PATH, BIRD SONG]
SIBLEY: So I’m hearing a Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Grey Catbird, Red-winged Blackbird singing.
[SONG OF INDIGO BUNTING]
Up above us there’s an Indigo Bunting singing up in the Maple right there, that high pitched sound, and every note is repeated, every phrase is repeated. The Indigo Bunting is a migrant. They don’t normally nest right here. So we can be confident that that bird probably just arrived last night. It probably flew up from the south last night, dropped in here sometime early this morning, and now it’s checking things out, gets up to the top of the tree and sings a little bit to see if anyone answers, and it’s kind of assessing the area to figure out if this is a good place to stay for the summer, and I think the answer’s going to be no. It’s too wet for Indigo Buntings. They don’t nest here, so it’ll move on. Maybe it’s already moved on. I don’t hear it anymore.
This time of year, all the birds are singing, and it’s so much easier to walk through an area listening and hear what’s around, and it’s possible to identify every species, essentially every sound can be identified.
SIBLEY: One of the things about birdsongs is their ears work a lot faster than ours. Their ears and their brain processing of sounds works a lot faster than we do, so they’re hearing an incredible amount of information more than we do. If you take a bird sound and slow it down to about a quarter speed, then you start to hear the kind of detail they’re hearing.
CURWOOD: So why is it that birds are, well, singing the loudest in the morning?
SIBLEY: I think the song in the morning is mostly kind of a checking in with the neighbors. Male birds sing to kind of defend their territory, to mark the edges of their territory. So they’ll circle around to perches at the edge of their territory and sing from those spots and their neighbors, they’ll recognize the sounds of their neighbors. They recognize each other. So the morning song is kind of just an announcement that, “I’m still here. Are you still here? Yes. OK. Territorial boundaries still enforced? Yes. OK.”
CURWOOD: And what about the migrants?
SIBLEY: Migrants, they might be singing to sort of test the area, to see if they get a response, to see if there’s a female nearby that might respond to the song. But mostly, it’s probably just hormones. It kind of goes back to the old poetic thing about birdsong just being an outpouring of joy, the uncontrollable urge to sing with the dawn of the spring morn, and these migrants, they’re near their breeding grounds here, they’re heading north, they’re just about to enter this phase of life where they’ll find a mate, they’ll set up a territory, raise young, and they just can’t control themselves. They sing at dawn.
CURWOOD: One of the things that has certainly changed about birding is our awareness that the climate is shifting, and that means that birds are shifting. How do you account for that when you do a habitat range in your books?
SIBLEY: In the 40 plus years since I’ve been birding, starting in Connecticut in the 1970s and now in Massachusetts, I see really big changes in birds. Some species have increased tremendously like Canada goose, Wild turkey, Red-bellied Woodpecker. Some of those species are southern birds that are moving north, and some of that’s probably due to climate change, but there are all kinds of other things going on in bird populations, and a lot of species have declined. But it’s about equal numbers of sort of winners and losers in the last 40 years, so over that span of time, 40 years, the maps and the bird guide would have changed a lot for probably 10 percent of the species.
CURWOOD: 10 percent of the species in different places 40 years ago. What accounts for that, do you think?
SIBLEY: Mostly it’s changes in habitat. The big change here in the northeast is that, well, 100 years ago it was almost all farmland, there was the very little forest. And 40 years ago, we were just coming out of that, and now, a lot of farms have been left to grow up to forest and all the suburbs that were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s with trees planted then, the trees are now 60 years old and big enough to support a lot of forest birds, the ones that can coexist with people like robins and bluejays and grackles and Wild turkey and even birds like Pileated woodpecker. It was incredibly rare in Connecticut when I was a kid in the ’70s, and now they’re pretty widespread and found in the suburbs.
CURWOOD: Indeed, and hungry in the suburbs too.
SIBLEY: Yes, sometimes unpopular when they look for food in the siding your house, but they can do a lot of damage. [LAUGHS]
CURWOOD: So you’re an ornithologist, you’re a writer and an artist. And you hand-paint every one of these bird pictures in your guide yourself. Tell me about the process and why you do it.
SIBLEY: When I’m in the field, I’m watching birds, I’m studying shape and posture and doing pencil sketches and then, so I have years and years, thousands and thousands of pencil sketches from the field. When I’m back in the studio I get all of my pencil sketches and I use photographs as reference to get all the details right, and I work on paintings in the studio. For me, and we’re really lucky in this time now, and it’s really in the last 15 years that photographs have become so numerous, to have so many photographers doing such good work and everything’s available on the internet that for the work that I do, I can find hundreds of photographs of every species. Illustrators like Peterson had to use specimens for their reference material.
CURWOOD: Yes, I guess Audubon famously shot everything he drew.
SIBLEY: Yes, he did, and he was traveling through the woods with nothing but a shotgun and his painting supplies. He didn’t have binoculars, he didn’t have cameras, nobody had a camera. There weren’t even books he could carry with him to help identify the birds. It was just him and his paintings.
[SOUNDS OF SWANS FLYING]
SIBLEY: A pair of mute swans flying by.
CURWOOD: Not so mute.
SIBLEY:[LAUGHS] Yeah, that sound is their wings. They do make vocal sounds also. They’re not entirely mute, but that sound is produced by their wing feathers. Just sort of humming through the air with each wing stroke.
CURWOOD: So, I have to ask you, what got you hooked on birding?
SIBLEY: I have always been interested in birding. My father’s an ornithologist so I’m sure that had something to do with it.
CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] I guess so.
SIBLEY: But, yeah, birding was a part of what our family did, I just really enjoyed it, the birding and I was always drawing birds also.
CURWOOD: So when did you realize that, well, this would be the work part of your life?
SIBLEY: As a young teenager in Connecticut, I was going out on the weekends with people from the New Haven bird club and watching birds, identifying birds, learning about them. People were supportive of my interest in birds and my drawing, very encouraging. And Roger Tory Peterson who had illustrated the most popular field guide at the time lived about 20 miles away. I met him a few times when I was a kid, and to have him flip through a few pages of my sketchbook and look at it and say, “Oh, these are very nice. Keep it up.” And I think I grew up with the idea that writing a field guide was a perfectly viable career choice. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in birds.
CURWOOD: Well, that’s a better way to grow up birding than being dragged out at five in the morning to stand in the cold.
SIBLEY: [LAUGHS] We did plenty of that too.
CURWOOD: There’s something about birding, which even if you don’t want to, it kind of grabs you.
SIBLEY: Yes, and the popularity of birding has increased so much in the last 40 years. When I started out in the ’70s, it was rare to see another birdwatcher, and now, you go to a place like Great Meadows here, the parking lot at times will be filled with cars of birdwatchers. I think it’s just a desire to connect with nature, and birdwatching is just away, it’s an excuse to set the alarm for 4:30 in the morning and go out even if it’s raining or windy, and get outdoors and just experience that. And it’s not so much about the birds, the birds are kind of the hook, the pull that gets us out there, but to a birdwatcher, it’s as much just the experience of being outdoors and feeling the change in weather and seeing the seasons change and being aware of those patterns. I think that's the real draw.
CURWOOD: David Sibley, thank you so much.
SIBLEY: Thanks, it's been a pleasure. What a great morning.
CURWOOD: For 2020 David Sibley has published a book called “What It’s Like To Be A Bird.”
[MUSIC: Blue Dot Sessions, "Lanky", Barstool]
CURWOOD: Hey listeners, I want to take a sec to tell you about a new podcast called HEAT OF THE MOMENT.
Produced by FP Studios and the Climate Investment Funds, this 12 part series looks at the climate crisis from a number of different angles including food waste, energy production, and deforestation...and provides hope for a way forward.
Each episode features a comprehensive interview with an expert as well as an in-depth field report.
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CURWOOD: Once birds have finished their migrations it’s time to get down to the serious business of finding a mate, building a nest, and raising chicks.
And as our Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender found in Lake Logan, British Columbia, the short season for raising young in the far North means birds there have to work fast.
Lake Logan, British Columbia
© 2020 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved
LENDER: He is working as fast as he can. Hammering reshaping creating space, where there was none. Works as hard as he can. Rest is not his friend nor time North of a rigid line where in a good year spring and the incipient chill of winter are no more than sixty days apart, everything doing is done with a start.
There are already young in the nest and they… will not… wait.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, in the season when life renews itself and the world again is green, never gets to sit on the shelf. Leisure? Not for him, not for the one who is his mate. At her own hectic pace shuttles back and forth, forth and back with insects in her mouth. Today’s special ants by the baker’s dozen, their armor burnished and shimmering. She squeezes (groceries and all) into the opening that is perfectly round and perfectly small to feed a colony of her own.
Again, for something else.
Between these winged deliveries Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tucks inside, craftsman, designer, laborer all in one. Minutes later shows his face, beak as full of sawdust as it can be, grains falling the length of the tree. Then off and away to hide the telltale signs of all he has done, all his colors flashing - black white deep crimson yellow - as if illumined by the final glow of the sun.
Though the day is less than halfway.
And will end too soon.
And not soon enough.
The baby birds grow and grow at an exponential pace. He wants to stop he wants to work and needs to sustain himself, all three in contradiction. But there it is. The builder inside him always wins. That is his way. He is responsible. The future depends upon him.
This he knows. His persistence tells you so.
Orchids are flowering under the pines, and in the open field stands of wildflowers host the urgent dance of fritillaries bartering for nectar in exchange for the pollen that they bring. The song sparrow and the sparrow hawk conjoin in unequal embrace. A yellow-headed blackbird lands calling his throaty call, the cattails swaying under him. Marsh wrens bend cattail leaves into a basket that will be their homestead. The lynx crosses the shallow stream, his round wide paws barely splashing. He climbs the bank that is low but steep and into the trees.
At a distance a moose and her calf watch the lynx retreat, wary, weary for all that the coming seasons will demand.
Inside the yet unfinished nest Yellow-bellied Sapsucker closes his eyes and for a brief while, without having to spread his wings, takes flight.
CURWOOD: That’s Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender.
[MUSIC: Blue Dot Sessions, "Kid Kodi", Skittle]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Paloma Beltran, Thurston Briscoe, Jenni Doering, Jay Feinstein, Merlin Haxhiymeri, Candice Siyun Ji, Don Lyman, Isaac Merson, Aynsley O’Neill, Jake Rego, and Jolanda Omari. Tom Tiger engineered our show. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can hear us anytime at L-O-E dot org, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts- and like us, please, on our Facebook page - Living on Earth. We tweet from @livingonearth. And find us on Instagram at livingonearthradio. I’m Steve Curwood. Happy Earth Day and thanks for listening!
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