A Song for June 16

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Click the sonogram to hear and see the sound.

Dawn. The time of discovery for the student of birdsong. The time of humility for the experienced naturalist. The common thread is the dawn chorus, its strands the dawnsong of each member of the community of singing birds. And no group offers more discovery and humility than the tyrant flycatchers (Famiy Tyrannidae). I have already described a predawn discovery in Guatemala. Another that comes to mind is an unfamiliar dawnsong in the pitch dark of June 21, 2007 in Washtucna, Washington. It turned out to be a common bird, the Western Kingbird. Or, how about the Cassin's Kingbird that flummoxed me on May 28, 2018?

Today's bird was the first. At the time, the Cordilleran Flycatcher and the Pacific-slope Flycatcher were considered the same species, the Western Flycatcher. I had first encountered it in California in 1970, and heard it often in the Rocky Mountains from 1974 to 1981, the year the Endangerd Species Program of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish sent me into the Zuni Mountains to survey birds, with a wary eye for any endangered species, especially the Buff-breasted Flycatcher. It is a Mexican species that had been collected, enigmatically, at nearby El Morro (now a National Monument) in the 19th century. It was assumed, by my funders and by me, that I knew the sounds of the common birds of the Zuni Mountains.

As part of my survey I arrived before dawn at LaJara Spring, a watering stop on the 19th century route to the west coast. As the dawn chorus began I was thrilled to hear (and record) a Hammond's Flycatcher, a species not known officially to nest this far south, although I would find a nest in these mountains in three days. Stoked up, I ascended a gravel road along the slope of LaJara Canyon. Soon I began to hear an unfamiliar sound. You can relive that experience with me by clicking the sound above. I had never knowingly heard this sound in my life. I was out at dawn a lot, because I used dawnsong to locate Mountain Chickadee nests for my dissertation research, but I had not heard this. Visions of Buff-breasted Flycatchers danced in my head. I doubt anything about the dawnsong of that species had been published at that time. I certainly didn't know what its dawnsong sounded like. But, as it turned out, I didn't know the dawnsong of the Western Flycatcher either, a common bird in the Zuni Mountains. I came back to this bird's territory after the sun was up. He wasn't singing dawnsong, but a Western Flycatcher was giving the well-known territorial call of that species, the vocalization that most birders still think of as its song. I was quite confident that the bird I saw had made the sounds I recorded. And I was right, as dozens, maybe hundreds of encounters since then have borne out. They do sing this song very occasionally after dawn, but if you want to hear it in real time, don't wait for a chance encounter. Go out before dawn.

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