Stuck In My Head

photographs and text by Brian Willson

I expected to sleep in. But then some hazy sunlight snuck through my blinds, and I realized the weather forecast had been hasty. So, hastily, I grabbed dog and we drove up to Beech Hill.

A pretty good cloud cover, but little wind. And plenty of birds singing up there, as I knew there’d be—the old familiar songs. Witchity-witchity-witchity! (Yellowthroat.) Teacher! Teacher! TEACHER!! (Ovenbird.)Miraculous fountains of fairy dust!(Hermit thrush.) Per-chickory, per-chickory! (Goldfinch.) I know them all. Some of them even get stuck in my head, like the chestnut-sided warblers’ genial Pleased, pleased, pleased to meet you! Chestnut-sided warblers were greeting each other all over the place this morning. Clearly, they’d just arrived.

Wee-see, wee-see, wee-see, wee-see, wee-see, sang a black-and-white warbler from small trees just off the trail.

I checked, and of the twenty-two species on my list today, only one bird was not singing: the woodcock Jack and I flushed on one muddy curve. (It was so near that my dog lunged instinctively on the leash, doing a little circus flip and nearly taking off four fingers of my left hand.) All the rest were singing. And it got me thinking about song, sound, music.

I think about sound a lot. About hearing. I wonder how I would cope without my ears. I think of all the songs I wrote when I was a teenager, dreaming of a career as a musician. And I often get songs stuck in my head. Songs—a collection of notes, of vibrations, put into a specific order over time—seem to tap directly into the emotional centers of our brains. Could this phenomenon be eons old? The first, fundamental long-distance, wireless communication technology, fine-tuned over the millennia? Did dinosaurs sing like their tiny progeny do today? I think they probably did.

Popular tunes that we grow up with stay with us for a lifetime. Compositions of Beethoven, Foster, and DeBussy linger over the ages, bring entire communities of humans together through music, never mind their climate or politics. Generation after generation. There’s connection here somewhere.

Returning from the summit, Jack and I were about to head down the lower wooded trail as we usually do, when I heard the song of an American redstart. It was the first redstart’s song I’d heard since last year, but I knew it at once, stuck as it was in my head. We detoured back down the upper trail so I could find the bird, maybe get a photo. I did find it, got a couple washed-out pics.

A couple hours after our return the rain came. Tonight, it rains still. Now most birds are asleep, and the ambient music out there is splashy and liquid.

But tomorrow, no matter the weather, there’ll be singing out there again.

Beech Hill List
Beginning at 7:45 a.m., I hiked the upper wooded trail.

1. Common yellowthroat
2. Ovenbird (v)
3. Hermit thrush (v)
4. American goldfinch* (v)
5. Black-throated green warbler (v)
6. American robin
7. Nashville warbler (v)
8. Black-and-white warbler
9. American crow* (v)
10. Red-breasted nuthatch (v)
11. Northern cardinal
12. Wild turkey (v)
13. Black-capped chickadee
14. Herring gull* (v)
15. Eastern towhee
16. Chestnut-sided warbler
17. Rose-breasted grosbeak (v)
18. Gray catbird (v)
19. American woodcock
20. Song sparrow (v)
21. Savannah sparrow (v)
22. American redstart


23. Mourning dove
24. Mallard
26. Canada goose
27. European starling