Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The ultimate misidentification

I’m quite used to being awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of the resident barred owls calling back and forth in my backyard in spring.  It’s a soothing call that doesn’t jolt me awake like the neighbor’s dog, and sometimes I can’t even tell whether it’s a dream or reality. But the bird song that woke me earlier this month was a totally different creature.
            It was during the early stages of songbird migration, so almost every morning when I opened the backdoor I welcomed the song of another returning species. American robins and
Wood thrush singing (Blaine Rothauser)
Carolina wrens are often the most noticeable singers because they’re so loud, but at least they usually wait until a hint of sunlight is peaking above the horizon before they begin making a racket.
            The bird that woke me that morning did so at 4 o’clock.  And as unhappy as I was to have my sleep disturbed, I also felt a tad giddy in my semi-consciousness.  That’s because the song sounded like that of a wood thrush.  Not only would it have been my first wood thrush of the year, but it’s also one of my favorite birds and a contender for the most beautiful song-maker in the entire avian world.
            I waited a moment for the bird to sing again so I could confirm its identification. A birder’s reputation is built largely on the ability to accurately identify species, so I wanted to be certain. And when at last the bird let loose with its rolling, flute-like melody, I was convinced I was correct and mentally placed a check-mark next to its name on my bird list. 
While I’ve heard plenty of wood thrushes singing in the past, seeing them well is another story.  They are common here in Rhode Island, and their songs emanate ubiquitously from almost every wood lot in late spring. But they tend to arrive right about the time that the leaves on the trees emerge, and they usually perch just deep enough in the forest to remain out of sight.  Sometimes it’s quite frustrating to hear one singing right in front of me and yet still be unable to see it.
Lying in bed that morning, however, I had no intention of trying to see that particular bird.  After all, it was still totally dark outside, and I was hoping for another couple hours of sleep.  So I waited to hear it sing one more time before sinking back to sleep.
But when it sang again, something didn’t sound quite right.  I couldn’t imagine that I misidentified it, given how its song is so distinctive.  So again I paused for one more song.  I even lifted my head from my pillow for a few seconds to be sure I heard it right. 
Just as I did, the song wafted my way once again.  And it wasn’t a wood thrush. In fact, it wasn’t even a bird.  Nor was it outside my window.  The beautiful, flute-like song I enjoyed so much for a few rapturous, semi-conscious minutes came from my wife lying beside me.  More precisely, it came from my wife’s nose.  It was whistling.
And as I lay my head back down on my pillow and mentally erased the check mark next to “wood thrush” on my 2018 bird list, I told myself to never ever tell my birding friends about the ultimate misidentification.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on May 21, 2018.

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