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Spring Birds
“The hills are alive
With the sound of bird song”

These are the words that bounce around in my head as I’m enjoying my morning and evening walks. And indeed, bird song is the most beautiful music to me, and the music is particularly rich in the spring.

Learning how to identify bird song is much like learning a new language. When first hearing a foreign language, it may sound musical and intriguing, but all the sounds jumble together making little sense to the untrained ear. 

With study and training, eventually individual words become clear. So it is with bird song. When coming upon a large congregation of birds singing, it may sound like an explosion of sound until you learn to pick out the individual voices.

Besides identifying the bird by sight as it is singing, there are resources available to help you learn the songs. Since most of us now carry smart phones everywhere we go, be sure to load the free Merlin Bird ID app, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The app will ask you a series of questions, offering a selection of possible candidates based upon your answers, your location and time of day. Find general information about the bird, listen to its song, and see a map showing where the bird breeds, migration areas and wintering grounds.

I recommend carrying a digital recording device, small units which can be purchased for $50 or $60 and slip easily into a pocket. This is handy for those times when you can’t locate the bird to make visual identification.

With the right recorder, you can load your songs onto the computer. Make sure your recorder comes with a USB cord for transferring files. Visit the website, to search for birds and compare songs to the recordings you’ve made. 

Collect enough recordings and you can use them as the background music for your home-made videos and yes, I have done this. 

Many bird songs are similar. For example, the American robin, the Western tanager and the black-headed grosbeak have similar songs, with subtle differences. 

The robin and the grosbeak tend to be long-winded, whereas the tanager sings in short bursts. Listen for the hoo-hoo sound in the grosbeak’s song. The robin’s tempo is a bit slower than the grosbeak’s. The tanager has a burry, raspy quality to his song.

The call notes are very different, so learn and listen for those as well, to help you identify a bird you cannot see.

Probably the best way to jump-start learning is to spend time in the company of people who already have the knowledge. Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS) offers bird walks every Thursday morning through June 9.

Meet the group at 7:30 in the Aspen Grove parking lot. Led by either Will Richardson or Kirk Hardie, co-founders of TINS, you are virtually guaranteed to spot a number of native birds while drinking from the knowledge base that these naturists have to offer, as well as meeting some fellow bird enthusiasts. 

Visit the TINS website, to learn about this and additional programs, events and learning opportunities. Note that the Western tanager is featured in the organization’s logo. While vibrantly colored, this bird is often hidden in the tree canopies, remaining unnoticed by passersby. 

The tanager has become a symbol for the organization in part because the founders noticed that this colorful bird inspires people to become more aware of nature after seeing one for the first time.

That observation reminds me of when I first spotted a Western tanager. I had seen pictures of it, had been told it was here at Lake Tahoe, but had never seen one. 

I had been hearing the call notes for a couple of weeks, but could not spot the bird. One evening, while walking with my daughter, I heard it and she was able to spot it, high up in the tree. I still couldn’t see it but she described it to me and I knew that at long last, I had found the Western tanager. 

The bird walks take place along the streams and amongst the trees that surround the Village Green. 

Thanks to the sharp eyes of the leaders, participants are treated to a feast of bird watching. Be sure to join at least one bird walk this spring, from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Thursdays. The outings are free and open to the public whether you are experienced or a novice, no pre-registration is necessary.

Male Western tanager, taking flight Photo courtesy of Will Richardson, Tahoe Institute for Natural Science
Male black-headed grosbeak
 Photo courtesy of Sue Shebosky
Pennsylvania resident