photographs and text by Brian Willson

Ah, summer in the Northern Hemisphere—the time of greatest biomass. Luxuriant foliage, swarming insects, grasses gone to seed, berries gone to fruit. And birds, birds everywhere. At least three, four times the number of birds that arrived in spring. Trouble is, it’s pretty damn hard to find ‘em.

Glimpses, really, is about all you get. Glimpses of the numerous offspring of the successful mating pairs that hooked up just short weeks ago, youngsters learning to hunt and hide, trying out their wings. Faint peeps and chips in the undergrowth or high in the leafy canopy. Take a walk in the woods and you can almost feel them there. Believe me, they’re everywhere.

Today was cloudy and cool. I turned off the fans and closed a couple windows. Rain in the forecast, but it didn’t rain much. (Or hasn’t yet.) Still, I skipped my bike ride for a change, and we hiked up Beech Hill a little early, dog and I.

Where once were many voices of veeries and ovenbirds now is no trace of either species. Oh, they’re there all right. But where? Red-eyed vireos are about the only dependable singing birds—they and hermit thrushes. But coming through the berry patch, we stopped for a listen. Heard the chip! of a stealthy yellowthroat. Heard the faint mew! of a gray catbird. Then, after a minute, an actual catbird popped up into view—or barely into view, hidden by layers of foliage. A 2012 bird, a young one (you can tell by the speckles and the long mouth line). And I knew there were several more where that one came from. Somehow, I even managed a photo.

On up the slope and into the open fields, and I began to hear the peeps of alder flycatchers. In spring, I must’ve heard males singing from four of five points up there, whereas now there have got to be at least a couple dozen birds around, flitting secretively between trees. I caught sight of a couple young ones, fluttering after flies. Got a distant photo of one of their parents.

At the summit, I heard a couple of singing song sparrows but didn’t glimpse a one. I did, however, glimpse a solitary phoebe. This, after seeing none for a while.

Some birds move in the upper air, like the parties of cedar waxwings and goldfinches you can dependably see or hear. But many others hunker down in the undergrowth, hanging together in little families. Like the group of towhees I spotted coming back into the woods, scratching about the leafy forest floor. (I find that the young birds, still learning what to fear, are actually much easier to see.) As we stood near the towhees, I heard chickadees moving in the trees above them and the chip of some warbler or other—then the sound of something gently rapping, which turned out to be a downy woodpecker.

In the deeper woods were singing hermit thrushes (but still no trace of a veery). And robins, too, and the voice of a black-throated green warbler. But although there must’ve been scores around—maybe even a hundred—I neither heard nor saw a single ovenbird.

But I have little doubt they noticed dog and me.

Beech Hill List
Beginning at 3 p.m., I hiked the wooded trails.

1. American crow*
2. Red-eyed vireo* (v)
3. Eastern towhee
4. American goldfinch* (v)
5. Cedar waxwing
6. Alder flycatcher
7. Gray catbird
8. Black-capped chickadee (v)
9. Common yellowthroat (v)
10. Hermit thrush* (v)
11. Eastern phoebe
12. Song sparrow* (v)
13. Downy woodpecker
14. American robin*
15. Northern flicker (v)
16. Black-throated green warbler (v)


17. Northern cardinal (v)
18. Herring gull
19. Rock pigeon
20. Osprey
21. Mallard
22. Mourning dove

v = Voice only
*Also elsewhere