A Blue-headed Vireo’s Scolding Call

A little later in the morning as I headed out for a walk, Yellow-rumped Warblers were still scattering chip calls around the yard and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet called its dry jidit-jidit. Light showers of tan and yellow leaves drifted down gently. I was searching an open grassy area for Chipping Sparrows when a clear, pretty song took my attention in a different direction. 

It was a song that sounded more like spring than fall, a series of slow, sweet notes and phrases – the song of a Blue-headed Vireo, a bird whose appearance is as cool and lovely as its song. It wasn’t hard to find among the patchy brown and green leaves of an oak, partly because it wasn’t too high and it moved deliberately, not fluttering or flitting. And partly because – once seen – the face of a Blue-headed Vireo is so striking that it stands out as if in a spotlight. 

Its head was a deep blue-gray, with bright white markings around the eyes that look like spectacles. Its back was olive-green, wings dark gray with white wing bars, its breast pale with a wash of lemon-yellow on the sides. And its throat was snowy-white, which I saw especially well as it lifted its head to sing, again and again. 

But it wasn’t only singing. This Blue-headed Vireo was also making a frequent buzzy, chattery, insistent call, and I watched as it made this call several times. I later learned that it’s one of its most common vocalizations, described as a scolding call – very different from its gentle song. For me the call was a new one to learn, so this was maybe the most interesting part of watching it this morning – though it’s also always just a pleasure to see this beautiful bird. The scolding call is one I’ve heard many times in the past, but I didn’t know what it was. This is the first time I have watched a Blue-headed Vireo as it scolded, and could really connect it – and I hope, begin to learn it. 

Seeing a Blue-headed Vireo here is always special, and almost always takes me by surprise. They are not among our most common birds – though they do commonly show up now and then. I have seen them most often in very early spring, and sometimes like this, late fall. And it’s certainly possible that they are around more often that I realize, because they’re often more quiet.  

Blue-headed Vireos breed in Canada and in higher elevations in the eastern U.S. and winter in very southern parts of the U.S. and Central America. Some may spend the winter in this part of the Piedmont in Georgia – they are said to be expanding their winter range into this region, though it seems that most still move further south.

When I first started birding, several decades ago, I learned to know this songbird as a Solitary Vireo – and that name still seems to me to capture the essence of its independent spirit and elusive ways. Its name was changed in the late 1990s when the Solitary Vireo species was split into three different species to reflect more accurate genetic knowledge. But it’s nice that the Blue-headed Vireo’s scientific name remains, Vireo solitarius.

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