Birds that buzz…

Two words that are usually said together:  bird song, or better yet songbirds, those usually small birds in your garden that produce the wonderful, lilting, sometimes piercing, often warbling, unique collection of notes that identifies each species.

But not all songbirds sing, or sing exclusively — some of them have adopted a buzz as part or all of their song. In fact, their soft buzzes or wheezes are remarkably similar and difficult to pinpoint when looking for that buzzing bird that you’re not really sure isn’t some sort of insect.  Why would male birds want to buzz instead of sing?

Take the Blue-winged Warbler for example; wouldn’t you assume from its name that its song would be a melodious warble, rather than a two-note “bee-buzz“?

blue-winged warbler-

A beautiful Blue-winged Warbler sitting out on the edge of the forest overlooking a prairie grassland, buzzing away.

blue-winged warbler-

A better look at the blue wing of the Blue-winged Warbler. He was little and mighty far away.

Just 20 feet away, a Clay-colored Sparrow is buzzing away, with a very similar, low frequency, raspy buzz call.

clay-colored sparrow-

Pale-colored, but with distinctive stripes on its head and face, the Clay-colored Sparrow blends in well to its usual background of dry grass.

clay-colored sparrow-

Its pink bill resembles that of a Field Sparrow, but its buzzing “song” makes it easy to identify.

Buzzing seems to be a common characteristic of “song” in grassland birds, like Grasshopper Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.  So, one wonders if these birds are trying to avoid detection in prairie habitat by mimicking insects when they “sing”, or whether female birds just find buzzing particularly enticing?

It turns out that buzzing sound made with the bird equivalent of a larynx (called a syrinx), is actually quite physically challenging, and therefore could be an indicator to females of the quality of a potential mate.  German researchers* found that larger, more robust male Nightingales incorporated more buzzes in their song, and enjoyed greater attention from females than their less robust or younger competitors.

Another possible explanation for buzzing birds found in grassland habitats is that low frequency buzzing notes apparently carry long distances, and can be heard throughout and beyond the male’s territory.  Banded Wrens incorporated more buzzing notes in their early morning song that was directed toward other males in the nearby vicinity, at times before females were present.**

*Citation: Weiss M, Kiefer S, Kipper S (2012) Buzzwords in Females’ Ears? The Use of Buzz Songs in the Communication of Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos). PLoS ONE 7(9): e45057.

**Citation: P.L. Trillo and S.L. Vehrenkamp. Anim Behav. Song types and their structural features are associated with specific contexts in the Banded Wren. 2005 Oct; 70(4): 921–935.

Prairie landscapes

On our drive to Lincoln Nebraska this past weekend, we stopped by several Minnesota prairies to see if my attempts at HDR (high dynamic range) photography could capture their essence.  This technique of fusing a series of exposures (from very dark under-exposed to very light over-exposed images) of the same scene allows you to showcase the full range of highlights in the landscape.  The colors and highlights are better if you shoot with the golden light of sunset or sunrise at your back; we missed some of the good light, and were hampered by cloudy, overcast some of the time.

Photomatix software allows you to create a variety of effects ranging from the very natural to the very surreal (in fact, that’s one of the settings), and at $39 for the beginner’s level, it’s a bargain.  Here’s an illustration of what I mean by “surreal” effects shot at sunset with the windmills on Buffalo Ridge in the background.

Prairie photos wouldn’t be complete without a couple of bird photos.  In the drier meadows along roadsides we heard and saw numerous Dickcissels, one of the most common prairie birds.

A little Clay-colored Sparrow was annoyed with us for standing too near its nest.

In the wetter area of the prairie in a cattail marsh, we saw Yellow headed Blackbirds, but they were too shy to come out where they could be photographed.

A White Pelican flew over the prairie on its way from one waterhole to another.  You can almost see the bones of the wing through the underside of the feathers.