Blue-headed Vireo and Its Scolding Call

After a night of steady, drenching rain, this morning dawned cloudy, gray and warm, and very green with more and more new leaves all around. Dozens of White-throated Sparrows came out early to forage in the soggy yard, and some whistled their sweet, haunting songs. A Louisiana Waterthrush sang a bright, repeated anthem down in the woods by the creek, and a Black-and-white Warbler sang weesa-weesa-weesa in trees around the edge of the woods.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet burst out with its tumbling song, Pine Warblers and Chipping Sparrows trilled, and an Eastern Bluebird warbled a gentle, blurry chi-wee-oo. Many other birds also sang, and I even heard the trumpeted calls of a Pileated Woodpecker somewhere in the woods – an increasingly uncommon visitor here.

I was especially happy to hear again the song of a Blue-headed Vireo – this time coming from the branches of a tall river birch fluttering with small, new-green leaves. This time it was easy to find, and I had a clear, dramatic view of a slender gray bird with a dark blue-gray head and striking, bold white spectacles, two prominent white wing bars, and a paler-gray breast, with just a hint of lemon-yellow on its flanks.

It moved steadily and deliberately through the branches, searching for insects and other small prey, and made its way into some nearby water oaks – but at times it became more animated and lively, fluttering up and hopping from branch to branch, head up and alert. It seemed to be interacting, maybe conflicting, with another bird in the same tree that I’m pretty sure was a Red-eyed Vireo, though it wasn’t singing and was hard to see well enough to be certain because it stayed more hidden in the leaves.

The Blue-headed Vireo continued to sing now and then as it moved through the trees, and it also several times gave a chuckling, rattling call. I believe it was what the Birds of North America species account* describes as a kind of “scolding” call – a rapid and somewhat varied cha-cha-cha-che-che-che-che, with a throaty quality that I would describe as chuckling. It opened its bill, and I could see its throat vibrate with the call. I watched as it gave this call several times, some – and maybe all – occurred when it was interacting with the other bird.

A Blue-headed Vireo is a very dramatic bird to see, and though it is still considered a relatively common bird of northeast forests, it always looks exotic and special to me. We see it as a migrant in spring and fall, and while its populations have been increasing over the past few decades generally – here in our own woods it seems to have become less common than a decade or two ago, probably because of forest fragmentation and other changes in habitat here.

*Morton, Eugene and Ross D. James. 2014. Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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