Heed the call!
Birdcalls are at their peak in prime locations a few minutes from where you live
By Pat Wilk
When you leave your home tomorrow morning, stop for a moment or two and just listen. You should hear a bird call or two, and then a few more. The longer you pause, the more complex the soundscape becomes. Perhaps you’ll notice the goldfinch, whose call sounds a bit like, “potato chip, potato chip” or the little chickadee, who keeps saying his name, “chicka-dee, dee, dee”. Maybe you’ll hear the steady tap of a downy woodpecker finding some tasty morsels in a nearby trunk. If you let your eyes follow the sound, catch some movement, and follow an unexpected flash of color, you’re likely to be rewarded with the sight of a tiny little body with complex and beautiful coloring, and a constitution sturdy enough to survive our most brutal winters—or strong enough to or fly hundreds of miles each year to be here. Maybe later, you could spare a few minutes to open up an app on your smartphone or go to a website on your laptop, where you could learn the name of the birds you saw, study a few images, and hear a few sounds. Next time, you’ll know. Wait! You’re becoming a birder.
Spring is perhaps the most exciting time of the year for Berkshire County bird enthusiasts. For one thing, we’re able to see not only the usual avian residents who make their homes here, but migrating species, such as wood warblers, who are passing through our territory on their way north. “You can bird year round, but in the spring we have neotropical migrants,” said Audrey Werner of Williamstown, a biologist who has been birding since 1982, and is a past president of Berkshire County’s Hoffman Bird Club. Another plus to this season is the sheer diversity of sound. Birds sing more frequently now than at any other time of the year, because they are using their voices to attract mates and establish territories. “The forests and fields are full of birdsong,” she said. “If you bird by ear, you’re more likely to see them.”
Not only are we in the right time of year for birding, we’re also in the right place. “We have so many accessible places to bird,” says Leslie Reed-Evans, executive director of Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, at Sheep Hill, who leads free bird walks for local residents. “What makes a place a really good birding location is a variety of habitats. Take Cole Field, for example. There’s water, there’s open grassy area, there are shrubs, and mature trees. When you have that mix, you optimize the number of birds you are able to see.” In fact, Reed-Evans sent out an e-mail after leading an April 20 bird outing at that location that listed 35 different species, seen and heard, on a cool and sunny morning. “You could see a Great Blue Heron on the pond, bluebirds in the shrubs at the edge of the woods, and rose-breasted grosbeak in the forest,” she said. ”Some birds are known as ‘edge species’ because they thrive at the intersection of one environment and another.”
Field Farm (554 Sloan Road), which offers more than 300 acres of open fields, woods, and wetlands, with more than four miles of meandering footpaths, is another special birding location. So is Linear Park, where you can park at the town tennis courts off of Route 2, across from the Maple Terrace motel, and take a footpath through woods and meadows to the Hoosic River. Sheep Hill, at 671 Cold Spring Road, a 50-acre former dairy farm with a farmhouse and grounds open to the public year-round, is another gem for birders. There is a classroom stocked with binoculars, field guides, and other materials for loan while visitors are on the grounds. Hopkins Forest, a 2600-acre reserve managed by the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies, which offers miles of trails and abandoned roadways, is home to many species of birds, too, although once the trees have leaves, Reed-Evans notes, they are harder to see. ”It’s a lot easier to see birds in a meadow situation,” she said.
“I recommend people start with the birds at their feeders—identify them, so that you can say, this is a chipping sparrow, or a white-throated sparrow, or a song sparrow. It’s like getting to know people in your community. and then when you’re outside your community, you can recognize them.” Learning the songs, she says, is “absolutely critical.” A song tells you what the bird is, where to look for it, and its habits—is it foraging? Is it just sitting still and singing? “You hear a song, and you know it’s an indigo bunting. They like to hang out at the tops of high trees, so you know where to look. You know they’re blue, so you have a chance of seeing it.” The website of Cornell Lab of Ornithology www.birds.cornell.edu is a good place to learn birdcalls, and offers a new app you can download for free called Merlin. If you answer a few simple questions, the site uses data from e-bird, a database with millions of sightings reported by birders throughout the world, to show you the birds you most likely saw in your area on that particular day, and then gives you images and sounds that will help you to know that bird. “There is so much information at your fingertips now,” said Werner, “Twenty years ago, you had to have all of that knowledge in your head.”
There are plenty of other online resources for beginning birders. Werner also recommends the All About Birds site from Cornell, and likes the American Birding Association site, which includes a section about birding ethics. “They offer some good guidelines. For example, you don’t want to trespass on people’s property just to see a bird. And you don’t want to disturb a nest because it can affect the survival of the young.” The Hoffman Bird Club website, hoffmanbirdclub.org, offers a link to all of the club’s scheduled walks and activities.
Werner brought two enthusiastic college students to the most recent meeting of the Hoffman Bird Club. “I’m obsessed—they’re mini dinosaurs,” said Veronica Colacurcio, an English major about to graduate from MCLA who needed to learn seven birds a week in her ornithology class. “Once you know the birds, you can hear them in the air. You can pick them out one by one, and you realize they’re an actual presence.” “I started getting totally geeked,” said Jonah Levy, a sophomore at Williams. “I’d pick a random page from the Peterson Field Guide and study it over breakfast, and I’d look up calls when I didn’t know what they were, and listen to different calls online.”
“Birding is a fun challenge,” says Colacurcio. “It gets you outside, and it makes you realize what’s in the world besides humans. It’s really easy. You go outside and you open up your eyes and ears. That’s pretty much it. You learn to pay attention.” “It’s kind of cool to know more about your environment than you do when you’re just a casual observer,” said Levy. “Knowing the names of the birds helps you to feel more of a part of the natural community than someone just passing through.”
Physical birding locations you should go to:
- Field Farm, Williamstown
- Linear Park, Williamstown
- Sheep Hill, Williamstown
- Mass Audubon Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox
Virtual birding locations you should go to: