The return of the vireos is as notable as other birds

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Nothing excites birders like the month of May. Spring migration peaks. New birds arrive almost every day. Colorful warblers and tanagers monopolize the attention, but several groups of less spectacular birds are equally interesting.

Escape the spotlight

A red-eyed vireo, for example, is a drab tree top dweller, but its return is just as notable as that of a hooded warbler. So over the next few weeks, I’ll introduce some birds that often escape the spotlight.

The vireos are one such group. At a glance, they resemble warblers, but vireos are duller, heavier and have a stouter bill. The tip of the bill is even slightly hooked for subduing struggling insect prey.

For photos and recordings of vireos listed, visit www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search and search “vireo.”

Common trait

Another common trait is that vireos suspend their nests from the forks of small branches or twigs. But it’s not a hanging basket like an oriole’s nest, it’s simply a suspended cup, usually woven with fine plant fibers and spider silk.

The red-eyed vireo is the most common and widespread member of the vireo family. It’s abundant in eastern deciduous forests.

At times I sense that a walk through the woods is a journey through a series of never ending red-eye territories. Males sing from the tree tops and are often difficult to see well.

Red-eyes are olive-green above with a gray crown, dark eye line, white eyebrow and red iris.

Detected by ear

But red-eyed vireos are most easily detected by ear. Males sing incessantly. The song consists of short, repetitive, conversational phrases. For this reason, it is sometimes called the “preacher bird.”

The yellow-throated vireo also occupies woodland habitats, but it is typically less common. It, too, is difficult to see because it stays high in the trees, but when it appears, its bright yellow throat and breast and double wing bars are distinctive.

The yellow-throated voice is superficially similar to a red-eye’s. It sings short, double noted, repetitious phrases, but the pauses between phrases are longer and the quality of the sound is courser. Some describe it as a vireo with sore throat.

Blue-headed vireo

The blue-headed vireo prefers mature hemlock, spruce and pine woods, but they also nest in pure deciduous forests, so look for them in any wooded habitat.

Formerly known as the “solitary vireo,” the blue head is now named for its blue-gray (think nuthatch blue) head. It also has two white wing bars, a white throat, and white “spectacles” (white eye ring that extends to bill).

The blue-headed song is a series of short two- and three-note phrases. It suggests a red-eye song, but it’s slower with longer pauses, the notes are purer and some are slurred.

Easiest to spot

Though vireos tend to be difficult to see, I find the white-eyed vireo easiest to spot. It typically stays closer to the ground in dense vegetation. I find them in grape vine and multiflora rose thickets.

Look for white-eyes along forest edges and in old fields. Field marks to note include olive green body, two white wing bars, yellow spectacles and white eyes.

But again, this vireo’s voice gives it away. Its song is loud, emphatic and not particularly musical.

I learned it as, “Chick! Chick-a-per-whur! Chick!” but I prefer the phrasing included in some field guides, “Quick, pick up the beer check!”

Warbling vireo

The final vireo you might encounter here in the east is the warbling vireo. It is typically common in deciduous woods especially along streams, rivers and lakes.

If you see Baltimore or orchard orioles in an area, watch for warbling vireos because they are often found together.

Warbling vireos are as drab as birds come. White below, olive gray above and no wing bars, the best field mark is probably the dark eyes bordered by white eyebrows.

Unlike the other vireos, the warbling vireo sings a song, not just a series of broken phrases. Many notes are slurred and the song is longer, more musical and pleasant.

Though vireos are often difficult to see in the tree tops, they often respond to “pishing.” Just say the word “pish” without the “i.”

Males sometimes reveal themselves when they respond to find the “intruder,” especially during the nesting season.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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