June 14, 2011

Things that go “plump-er-lunk” in the night!

The spring banding season is over, but we found something to help fill the time until the fall banding starts: marsh bird surveys. Apparently there have not been any comprehensive surveys of the marsh birds in Presque Isle State Park in a few years, so we have been tasked with getting a better idea of where these elusive birds may be, if they are even here at all. There are lots of marshy areas in the park (as we found out), but not all may be suitable habit for the species we are interested in. In particular, we are looking for Black Rail, Least Bittern, Sora, Virginia Rail, King Rail, American Bittern, Common Moorhen, and Pied-billed Grebe.

To conduct a survey, we arrive at a pre-determined point and play a 15 minute recording consisting of the calls of all these species. The recording starts with a 5 minute silent period, to listen for any species that may be calling as we arrive at the site. Next, various calls from each species play, separated by 30 seconds of silence. This type of survey is called a playback, because the idea is that if any of these species are present they will call back in response to the recording. We have our recordings on MP3 players, and project the recording with either a small guitar amp or an iPod speaker. The guitar amp is loudest (important for projecting the recording over a large enough survey area), but the speaker is more portable (and fits in the dry bag). We have discovered it is possible to kayak with a guitar amp, which, if kept carefully wrapped in plastic bags, will stay dry. Maybe one of these mornings we’ll take a guitar out with us and we can have a jam session with all the red-winged blackbirds. I’m sure the fishermen out on the bay would find it quite amusing to see someone kayaking along with an electric guitar, riffing on Led Zeppelin or AC/DC.

To hear recordings of most of these species, we suggest you visit the Cornell All About Birds website. Learning bird calls and songs can be quite fun, especially when they are as distinct as some of these marsh bird vocalizations.

The Virginia Rail has one call that consists of rapido staccato eighth-notes, evenly spaced, sounding almost like a ticker-tape tapping out urgent news.


The King Rail’s call consists of staccato clacks, along with a trilly chik-burr (with the trill on the burr), which sounds exactly like a ratchet (the percussion instrument, and to some extent the tool).


The American Bittern has a quite distinctive sound—what Cornell describes as oong-ka-choonk, though to me it is more of a ump—ga-ump. The survey protocol describes it as pump-er-lunk. The sound is reminiscent of a single, echo-y water drop.


The Least Bittern makes a coo-coo-coo-coo call, almost like a low chuckle. I can imagine a small portly gentleman, sitting out in the marsh with his pipe, laughing at how ridiculous we look kayaking with a guitar amp.


Common moorhens make a variety of noises, some of which sound like a dying squeaker toy. Cornell refers to this as “a highly varied repertoire of calls, including clucks, whinnies, cackles, squawks, and yelps.” The word ‘repertoire’ seems a bit fancy for noises that to me sound like dying, disgruntled squeaker toys (a bit like Wheezy from Toy Story 2), but what do I know.


Our points are scattered all over the park, as we are trying to survey the entire suitable marsh habitat. Some points we survey by kayak, others by land. Our surveys take place either in the morning, from 30 minutes before sunrise until 3 hours after sunrise, or in the evening, from 3 hours before sunset until dark (about 30-45 minutes after sunset). We’ve been trying to do our surveys in the morning, which means heading to the park by 4:15 a.m. to grab the kayaks and get out on the water. Though the actual process of waking up that early isn’t always enjoyable, it’s worth it to be out on the water when the sun rises. We have yet to detect any of our target species, but the other wildlife in the park makes it worthwhile: wild turkeys meandering along the roadsides, rabbits hopping across the paths, red-winged blackbirds and yellow warblers already singing with such gusto.

Our schedule is very weather-dependent and somewhat fluid, but if you are interested in coming out with us (and have your own kayak) let us know! We will be doing marsh bird surveys until the end of June, and we’re always happy to have volunteers.

Happy Birding!

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