Tuesday Tunes

photograph by Brian Willson

What does an American Redstart sound like?
Tsee, tsee, tsee, tsee, tsway!

There’s a small bird singing just now in our woods and thickets. It’s one of our many resident wood-warbler species. It tends to be shy and secretive, and it’s song is fairly nondescript — but if you happen to glimpse one, it’ll leave an impression.

Although the call of the American redstart has that clear, bright warbler tone to it, it’s also one of the most ploddingly rhythmic and tends to hover around a single pitch. You’ll commonly see it written, “Tsee, tsee, tsee, tsee, tsway!”

But even the same individual bird will deliver markedly different calls depending on the season, the weather, the progress of the nest, and/or any number of other cues I’m wholly unfamiliar with. Sometimes I hear “Tsee, tsee, tsee, tsee, whank!” Other times, “Wi-si, wi-si, wi-si, wi-si!” Just this morning, a redstart out my window sang something that sounded like “Dang, dang, dang, dang!” But nearly always there’ll be from three to five notes, with all but the fifth (if there is a fifth) on one pitch, and a rhythm as steady as a heartbeat.

If you hear this rhythmic music in your garden or dooryard, see if you can sneak a peek at the singer. Adult male redstarts are a handsome blend of black and orange; first-year males (which also sing) and females are gray and yellow. While hunting mosquitoes, say, a redstart will flit antically, fan its colorful tail, and even bear a slight resemblance to a butterfly. But at Beech Hill yesterday I spotted a new (to me) redstart behavior: a male bird on a sunny perch, sitting still as a photograph, both wings and tail fanned out, eying me suspiciously. I think he might’ve been guarding the leafy doorway to a nest.