Dawn – A Barred Owl’s Call and a Scarlet Tanager’s Long Song

Lying awake around five o’clock this morning, through the open bedroom windows I could hear the muted, rustling songs of katydids, much softer than earlier in the night. I had just started to drift back off to sleep when I heard a deep, booming HOOooo. I waited a few seconds, and sure enough it called again, just a one-syllable, strong but velvety HOOooo, a Barred Owl, calling from somewhere fairly close. It sounded like the edge of the woods around the side of our house. It called again, and again. I could not hear a response from another owl. Every time it was a single hoot ending in a low, guttural purr – so I think it was a female. She called several times before falling silent about 5:30.

For a few minutes after that, I heard nothing but whispering katydids, until about 5:45, when the first Cardinal began to sing. It was quickly joined by several other Cardinals until at least a half dozen, and probably more were singing, one right outside my window, another further out in the yard, another two or three in neighbors’ yards, and more in the distance. Their songs are so clear and loud and there were so many of them singing that it was hard to distinguish any other sounds.

At 6:00, a Chipping Sparrow began what Donald Kroodsma* describes as its dawn song – short bursts of brisk rapid-fire trills, one right after another. At least one Chipping Sparrow and probably more sang for several minutes as the sky grew lighter and lighter. At 6:04, a Scarlet Tanager began to sing from the woods across the street. It sang constantly, and seemed to move rather quickly from one spot to another, as if it were going all around the edges of its territory faster than it would later in the day.

For a few minutes between 6:10 and 6:30, the Scarlet Tanager sang a long series of phrases without pausing. Usually its song is six or seven phrases, followed by a distinct pause before repeating them. This was just one long string of phrases – I don’t know how long or how many phrases exactly, but it was quite different from the song it sings the rest of the day. As it was singing, I also heard a second Tanager, maybe a female, calling Chik-brrr, chik-brrr.

Meanwhile, a Carolina Wren joined in about 6:10, and then another, and soon there were at least a half dozen Carolina Wrens singing in different directions. Mourning Doves began to coo, and a few Canada Geese passed overhead, honking. Around 6:20, I heard the twittering of Chimney Swifts, the cawing of Crows, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s repeated spee! A Goldfinch called potato-chip, potato-chip, an Eastern Towhee began to sing To-WHEE, a Red-bellied Woodpecker churrred, and I began to hear a high, indistinct peeping that I think was probably Titmice and Chickadees.

Soon after 6:30, the busiest part of the dawn chorus was over. Most of the Cardinals and Carolina Wrens had stopped singing for a while, the Chipping Sparrows had changed to their daytime, longer trills, and the Scarlet Tanager had begun to sing its more familiar six or seven-phrase song. At this time of year, the dawn chorus isn’t nearly as busy or full as it is in the spring, but it’s still the best way I know of to begin the day.

*Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds, Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

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