Birding by ear before the world wakes up


Wood thrushes returned the last week in April, so I know spring has officially arrived.

The day they returned I heard their evening vespers just before dusk. The next morning they sang before dawn’s first light. Spring migration is the most anticipated event of the year for birders. It prompts us to rise well before dawn to see (and hear) who has returned overnight. But sometimes life gets in the way.

Birding from bed

I stayed up late on May 2, and when my biological alarm rang at 5:30 a.m. the next day, I rolled over and went back to sleep. I then woke up at 6:45 to the sounds of some familiar voices. Robins, cardinals and mourning doves sang outside the bedroom window.

To assuage my guilt at having slept in, I started counting species. Why get up for a bird walk when I could bird by ear from bed? I had never really done that before, so I decided to tabulate the species I heard from 7:00 a.m. until 7:30.

It was a beautiful morning, and the chorus was incessant. Here are the birds I identified by voice only: wild turkey, red-bellied woodpecker, blue jay, American crow, mourning dove, eastern phoebe, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, house wren, Carolina wren, eastern bluebird, American robin, wood thrush, gray catbird, brown thrasher, European starling, white-eyed vireo, yellow warbler, hooded warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak, northern cardinal, eastern towhee, song sparrow, field sparrow, brown-headed cowbird, scarlet tanager and American goldfinch.

Twenty-eight species is not a bad list for just 30 minutes while lying in bed.


Conspicuously absent from the list were chipping sparrows, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles and blue-winged warblers.

Chipping sparrows returned weeks ago and are nesting on the edge of the yard, so I must have simply missed them. And the next day, on May 4, indigo buntings and blue-winged warbler returned.

Birding by ear is a skill that comes with practice and experience. Once mastered, hearing a bird is just as good as seeing it. The only exception, for me, is encountering bird I’ve never seen before. I must see a “life” bird to add it to my life list.

Boating safety

Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, is just a few weeks away, and as temperatures climb, boaters will hit ponds, lakes, streams and rivers to fish, swim, tube and ski.

Be smart this year, and stay alive. According to a story in the May/June issue of Pennsylvania Angler and Boater, boating accidents in the state claimed 17 victims last year. That number compares to 17 deaths in 2013, 11 in 2012 and 22 in 2011. The easiest way to drive the number of boating fatalities down to near zero is to always wear a life jacket. If someone dies in a boating accident, there’s an excellent chance they did not wear a life jacket.

For example, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, in 2014, 13 of the 17 victims, or 76.5 percent, were not wearing life jackets. In 2013, 15 of 17 victims, or 88.2 percent, did not wear life jackets. In 2012, eight of 11 victims, 72.7 percent, did not wear life jackets. And in 2011, 19 of 22 victims, 86.4 percent, did not wear life jackets.

Same nationwide

Nationally, the same trend holds true. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 651 people died in boating accidents in 2012. Of those 651 deaths, 462, or 72 percent, were by drowning. And of those drowning victims, 388, 84 percent, were not wearing life jackets.

That makes each drowning death preventable. Clearly, your best chance to survive a boating accident is to wear a life jacket from the time you get on a boat until you get off. And this means all boats — kayaks, canoes, rafts, rowboats, motorboats, pontoons and speedboats.

If there is not a life jacket for everyone on board, stay off the boat. Boating safety experts also recommend that all boat captains should take a boater education course. And never drink alcohol while boating. Fill the cooler with water and soft drinks.

Enjoy the water this summer, but be smart, be safe, and stay alive.


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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. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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