Nocturnal Swamp Symphony

By: Andrew McGivern, curator of exhibitions on May 16th, 2018

Spring is my favorite time of the year. The weather warms up, leaves begin to bud and, best of all, a variety of new birds makes their way back to our area. As an avid birder, I always look forward to the spring migration bird count which took place on Saturday, May 12. The Wausau Bird Club coordinates the event, and I have participated for several recent years. We’re asked to identify all of the birds in a certain territory, either by sight or sound. During past years, I’ve relied on sight, but now I’m beginning to identify a number of birds by sound.

American Bittern hiding in plain sight.

My day began waking at 3:15 am and being on location near an area wetland to listen in darkness for a variety of species – including bitterns, rails, owls, and an assortment of song birds – that call out while still dark to establish their territory or to call in a mate.

The sounds of certain wetland birds are unusual. The American bittern, for example, sounds like someone is submerging an empty glass up-side-down into water and tipping it to let air out and water in or something dropped into water making a kerplunk sound. Listen to recordings, below, of some unusual birds found in area wetlands.

At times it can become unnerving being surrounded by so many strange or foreign sounds – a cacophony of sound. Just before sunrise, resident great-horned  and barred owls make their presence known by calling out from opposite ends of the wetlands. You might even hear a Wilson’s snipe.

Wilson’s Snipe by Andy McGivern near Wausau, Wisconsin

I wasn’t always an avid birder. Much of my appreciation for birding came from talking to  Birds in Art artists and hearing their avian adventures. Over the years, a few of the artists such as Larry Barth helped answer identification questions about birds that I had encountered or explained how best to begin identifying birds by observing habitat, time of year, and geographical location to help narrow the possibilities. These artists’ enthusiasm for birds is contagious, and now I find myself talking to friends, family, and coworkers about our feathered friends.

This year’s Birds in Art artwork recently was selected by three jurors, and it’ll be another exceptional exhibition. Plan to visit on opening day, Saturday, September 8, 9am – Noon, to meet Birds in Art artists and perhaps ask them your bird-related questions. Spend time among the artists and their artworks; I suspect their avian enthusiasm will rub off on you, too.

American Bittern by Frank Lambert

Wilson’s Snipe by Martin St-Michel

Virginia Rail by Aidan Place

Sora by Paul Marvin

King Rail by Darrell L. Peterson

Yellow Rail by Peter Wilton

All recordings were made available via xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world.


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