A Song for April 14

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Click the sonogram to hear and see the sound.

The bird of the day is the American Redstart. It's a very easy bird to identify visually, in all plumages. But the song often stumps me. It is quite variable. Pieplow declares it the most variable of all warbler songs. Warbler songs in general stump me. I like to say you need to have a bird living near your house to really learn its song, but even that is not enough for warblers. More on that when we discuss Black-throated Gray and Hermit, at a later date.

I was well away from home when confronted with the redstart challenge. Every spring I get to accompany a group of contemporaries, i.e., old men, on a canoe trip on one of the blackwater rivers of the Carolinas. The "swamp trip" has produced great times, great friendships, and an abundance of opportunities to record birdsongs in near-pristine settings. On our 2018 trip to Merchants Millpond, NC and Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, VA, I eschewed paddling in Lake Drummond to drive around the refuge recording birds. I notched quite a few warblers, as the Ebird lists show, most of which were recognizable by ear. But, on one stretch of road I kept hearing a song I could not place. I found eight of these birds in a little more than a mile of roadside recording. Finally I got a glimpse of one and knew what I was hearing. I was lucky. Often, especially on trips abroad, I bring my recordings home unidentified and have to pore over Pieplow and the Macaulay Library collection looking for a match. It's time consuming, but better than never knowing what I heard.

This is not the cleanest redstart cut of the day (click the Ebird link to see the others), but I thought I would present it to show singing by more than one individual. Three redstarts are singing. One is very faint, but you can pick it up visually on the sonogram at 0:02, 0:21, and 0:31. Call the bird at 0:00 #1. He is singing at a faster pace than #2, whose song is a little higher. See if you can tell them apart on the moving sonogram. It is actually easier on a static sonogram, which is below. You can use the scroll bars to make both sonograms visible, so you can compare the moving one to the static one.

I guess you know how the American Redstart put its mark on dozens of other wood-warbler species. The rules of zoological nomeclature, understandably, require that the first name applied to a species has priority. This holds for a genus, family, etc., on up the taxonomic ladder. The American Redstart is a distinctive bird with the distinctive habit of flaring its tail while looking for insects in the treetops. The resulting flash of orange may startle the insect into moving, with the redstart darting into to capture its prey. The redstart was thought to be so distinctive that it deserved to be in its own genus, Setophaga. The run-of-the-mill warblers of the treetops were all put in the genus Dendroica. Now, this is a splashy group, running the gamut in plumage from Yellow to Bay-breasted to Chestnut-sided to Black-throated Gray. It's one of the great species swarms of the world. Or rather, it was. The old classification was based on "morphology," features you can see with the naked eye. But such features can be misleading when it comes to inferring evolutionary relationships, and genetic similarities, if assessed carefully, are typically more dependable. When the phylogenetic tree of the wood-warblers was estimated with genetic data, it turned out that the American Redstart belonged well inside Dendroica's thicket of branches. Now it seems the easy thing would have been to change the generic name of the redstart to Dendroica, but priority forbade it. All the dendroicas had to change their name to Setophaga, and that is why Setophaga now has some 33 species.

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