Red-eyed Vireo and Prairie Warbler

This morning began sunny and fresh and wet from overnight showers. The sky was a soft, gentle blue with veils and ribbons of white, and dusky, lingering rain clouds drifting away to the east. High up in the new-green leaves of trees beside our driveway, a Red-eyed Vireo sang – the first one of the season here. A Red-eyed Vireo is a greenish-gray bird that mostly stays hidden in the woods, its underside is white, its crown gray, and its face defined by a sleek stripe of white and a black line through the eye. Its repeated refrain – a series of short phrases repeated again and again – is one of the most familiar and constant sounds of our spring and summer woods, and even those who may not have any idea what a vireo is might notice the return of its song, in some unconscious way. Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Up in the tree. The words can’t capture the bright, musical notes, but they catch some of the cadence.

Later in the morning and in a different part of the neighborhood, I was surprised and very happy to hear a quite different song – a series of high, piping notes rising up the scale, with a slightly buzzy, elusive quality. The song came from the tops of some tall oaks in a neighbor’s yard, and when I stopped to listen, I saw a small bird fly out of a treetop, watched it pass straight overhead with a flash of yellow and then it kept going and disappeared into the top of another tree. And from there, it sang again. The song has always been one of my favorites, easily recognized – a Prairie Warbler. Though I didn’t see it well at all in flight, a male Prairie Warbler is a small, brilliant yellow warbler with black streaks on the sides, an olive head and back, a yellow face with black markings around the eyes, and a chestnut patch in the middle of its back.

Although I used to find Prairie Warblers here all through the summer, in recent years I’ve only seen them and heard their songs when they pass through in migration. This one was almost certainly passing through, maybe stopped by the overnight rains. So it may not stay around long, but it was a joy to hear its airy, magical song, which always sounds to me like the notes of a fairy-flute. 

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