Field Sparrow Dawn Song with American Toads trilling from nearby pond. 4:40am, 22 May 2009, recorded near Van Etten, New York. © Lang Elliott. Please play at a low volume to simulate a natural listening experience.
This season I’ve tried time and again to get a super-pleasing portrait of a Field Sparrow singing its exquisite dawn song. But try as I might, I was unable to beat the portrait I captured on May 22, way back in 2009.
Listening to the recording, imagine that you’re in the meadow at the crack of dawn, crouched about thirty feet from a shrubby sapling that provides a perch for the Field Sparrow. Not far away is a small farm pond with dense cattails, home to several American Toads that are still sounding off, though late in their breeding season. Other birds twitter in the distance. What an enormously pleasurable listening experience!
How does one recognize the Field Sparrow’s dawn song? Well, first it is important to become familiar with the typical daytime song pattern, which has been described as a series of sweet, slurred whistles that speed up into a trill. Below are some typical songs of the same male in the featured recording, but singing an hour later at 5:43am:
Field Sparrow – Normal Daytime Songs. 5:43am, 22 May 2009, recorded near Van Etten, New York. © Lang Elliott. Please play at a low volume to simulate a natural listening experience.
The dawn song pattern, which is sung at first light for ten or fifteen minutes, is fairly easy to recognize because it is divided into three (sometimes four) clear sections and is usually accompanied by a lot of high-pitched chipping. Listen for the distinct “middle section” of the dawn song. Here is a clean-and-close example, which I recorded just a couple of weeks ago:
Field Sparrow Dawn Song closeup with lots of high-pitched chipping. 4:44am, 15 May 2016, recorded near Brooktondale, New York. © Lang Elliott. Please play at a low volume to simulate a natural listening experience.
The very first Field Sparrow dawn song that I ever recorded were captured in 1992, during a visit to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. I rose before dawn and walked out into a dry flat of grass, sagebrush and shrubs. I soon homed-in on an excited song with lots of chipping. I thought it was a new species for me … most likely some western sparrow with which I was unfamiliar:
Field Sparrow Dawn Song (Monaural). 4:30am, 6 June 1992, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit. North Dakota. © Lang Elliott.
Listening carefully, however, I noticed certain of the note-sequences that had the quality of the Field Sparrow songs I was used to hearing back home in New York. So I guessed it was a Field Sparrow singing a special song, probably a “dawn song”. Luckily, as light came upon the flat, I was finally able to catch sight of the singer and make a positive identification.
I love it when birds sing special dawn or twilight songs. Many warblers do this as do many flycatchers and some of our sparrows. Over the last 25 years I have documented almost all of these, gathering both parabolic closeup recordings as well as more artful and immersive soundscapes where the dawn song is rendered as part of the whole.
When it comes to Field Sparrow dawn song, it’s hard to beat my featured recording from 2009. I think the toad trills are what makes it a winner … those sweet trills balance the soundscape, adding a low, droning element to what otherwise would be dominated by the high-pitched twittering of the birds. Thank goodness for those warty toads of the muck and grime, whose dreamy trills anchor and soften the Field Sparrow’s lofty and sprightly melody.
Friends … if you find that my blog has a positive impact on your life, please help support my effort by making a modest donation.