sarahs column

(Contributed photo by Dominic Sherony via Creative Commons)

Our recent stretch of warmer weather means that hiking trails are finally accessible, so I was ready to try out a new adventure this week. I headed up to the peninsula to check out the Jerry Jolly trail (who can resist a name like that?) on a day when the weather forecast called for partly sunny skies and a 5% chance of rain. This being the South Shore, my hike was quickly cut short by a sudden rumble of thunder and an alarming amount of lightning. I quickly hustled back to my car, but my disappointment was tempered by a pleasant surprise when I heard the sweet song of a blue-headed vireo just past the trailhead.

Morris mug

Sarah Morris

This particular bird marks the earliest in May that I’ve ever heard any vireo singing even when I lived further downstate. So I was pretty excited that it was also a more elusive bird than the red-eyed vireos most of us hear singing incessantly all summer. Blue-headed vireos are the easternmost bird in a group of three that used to be considered one species, the romantically named “solitary vireo.” My old Golden Field Guide, which I use to this day to successfully identify birds, still has the Solitary Vireo classification in it. Blue-headed vireos breed in the northern tier of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. I had one set up shop for a couple of summers at my old house in Marathon County, which is the furthest south I’ve observed this bird outside of the migration season. You’ll probably hear a blue-headed vireo before you see one, but once you hear it you might spot it especially before the trees leaf out. Their heads are grayish-blue color against an olive-green body, and their most distinctive feature is the white spectacles framing their eyes. You can call them closer to you by making “Psshhh” sounds, which I didn’t do this week since I was avoiding being struck by lightning.

The vireos who breed or migrate through our area all have similar songs that can take time to learn to distinguish. They sing a series of whistled phrases that sound like they’re asking and answering their own question. Honestly I think the best way to learn the difference is to listen to bird calls online, but even then I struggle to tell some of them apart. Blue-headed vireos have a song that’s slower and sweeter than the more common red-eyed vireo’s, and they have a lot of rapid buzzy alarm calls that are completely different from the red-eyed’s call — that is, except for the one where they sound even more like a cat than their cousins.

Blue-headed vireos occupy a lot of different habitats. In the far north where they’re the only vireo, they nest in coniferous forests, the only vireo that does this. Around here they utilize mixed mature forests for breeding. During the winter they’re very flexible and inhabit suburbs and even coffee plantations and cloud forests in Central America. They’re attracted to tangled vines and lots of understory so if you have land that hasn’t been too pastured out by deer you’ll be more likely to draw them in. These insect-eaters engage in elaborate mating dances before the male selects the nest site (but the female makes the final decision before any construction commences). Like other vireos, they can be hard to spot when they’re searching for food but can be seen during territorial disputes or when chasing off intruders. You might also spot them joining other bird species to mob and harass a predator.

Another reason it’s exciting to hear the first blue-headed vireo of the season is that they’re a rare good news story in the songbird world. Their numbers have nearly doubled over the past 50 years or so; I know I hear them around more than I did back in the ‘90s. The one I heard this week may have been migrating through, but when I go back to attempt the trail again next week I’ll keep an ear and and eye out for him. And I’ll let you know what I think of the trail too.

Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at morrisoutside@gmail.com.

Recommended for you