Golfing is ‘Master’ful time to bird watch

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I haven’t played a round of golf since college, but each spring I try to catch a few hours of the televised weekend portions of the Master’s golf tournament.
The competition can be dramatic, but I tune in to hear bird song.

The Master’s takes place at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, so spring has a head start. The magnolias are blooming, and birds are singing.

It’s a great opportunity to test your knowledge of some common bird songs. Only the loudest come through the audio portion of the broadcast as ambient sounds.

Sometimes they can even be heard on highlights shown on ESPN’s Sports Center. The best times to hear the voices of birds are just as players are teeing off. The silence can be deafening as players prepare to drive their tee shots, and that’s when bird songs are most audible.

Listen hard

It might even work best to close your eyes as each player addresses his ball. Within minutes of tuning in to the tournament, I usually hear Carolina wrens.

Their loud piercing whistle is hard to miss. Each phrase consists of a triplet — “Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle.”

Or maybe you’ll hear it as “Chirpity, chirpity, chirpity!”

It’s live, “birding by ear” via television. Then, sometimes during a dramatic putt, a series of slurred whistles catches my ear — “purdy, purdy, purdy.”

Slurred whistles are the calling card of northern cardinals. They have an extensive repertoire of songs, but most include at least a few slurred whistles. Along wooded stretches of fairways, I listen for the clear bell-like notes of tufted titmice, sometimes singles notes — “Here, here, here!” — sometimes doublets — “Peter, Peter, Peter!”

Incubation

By early April, they are surely incubating clutches of five or six eggs in a tree cavity along the tree line. Along these same wooded stretches, some years I’ve heard Carolina chickadees — four pure, high-pitched notes, “fee-bee-fee bay.”

They are not as loud as titmice, so they’re less likely to be heard. And they too should be incubating large clutches of eggs in a tree cavity. Whenever a camera gets near a building, I listen for eastern phoebes. They build nests on light fixtures under roofs, and they’re kind enough to buzz their own names — “Fee-bee!”

Until their eggs hatch and there are nestlings to feed, phoebe nests can be inconspicuous. But after the adults start feeding chicks and the young leave behind a mess on the porches, I suspect Augusta’s fastidious grounds keepers make the nests disappear.

Sometimes, I catch a faint low frequency vibration in the background. It’s the drum of a woodpecker; could be downy, hairy, or red-bellied. If I also hear a distinct chuckle, it’s a red-bellied woodpecker.

Trained ear

Though I’m sure more than a few species of warblers can be found at Augusta, hearing them requires patience and a trained ear. Listen for a buzzy, rising trill that ends with a forceful exclamatory note. That’s the sound of a northern parula, probably coming from the tree tops.

An unremarkable insect-like trill identifies a worm-eating warbler. The ovenbird sings from near ground level — “TEACH-er, TEACH-er, TEACH-er!” It gets louder with each repetition.

When pine woods are in view, listen for the high pitched trill of pine warblers. In more open areas, though, chipping sparrows sing a similar song. If you catch a glimpse of dense understory vegetation, listen for Kentucky and hooded warblers.

Kentucky warblers sing a simple, “chorry, chorry, chorry.” Hoodies exclaim a loud, “weeta, weeta, wee-tee-o.” Finally, as the tournament winds down Sunday evening, I listen for two members of the thrush family.

Cheer up

In between roars of the crowd, I sometimes hear American robins. Their bright musical phrases sound just like they do in my backyard – “Cheerio, cheer-a-lee cheer-up!”

And if I’m lucky, I might hear the yodel of a wood thrush — “Ee-oh-lay!” If you can recognize and identify three or four species while watching the Master’s, have another round. Your ears are tuned in to the spring migration. Now see if you can concentrate on your game during your next round of golf.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033, or by email via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.

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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