Birding by Ear–Learn How on Bonaire

Explore and use the melodies of nature to augment your bird identification skills.

What is birding by ear?

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Birding is a captivating hobby that allows individuals to connect with nature on a deeper level. While many birdwatchers primarily rely on visual cues, there is another fascinating aspect of birding that often goes unnoticed: birding by ear. In this article, we’ll delve into the world of avian melodies and explore the benefits, techniques, and wonders of identifying birds through their unique songs and calls.

“Birding by ear” refers to the practice of identifying bird species based on their vocalizations. Birds have a remarkable ability to produce a wide range of sounds, including complex songs and distinctive calls. By carefully listening to these sounds, birders can differentiate between species and gain insights into their behavior.

The benefits of birding by ear.

Enhance your own birding experience.

Engaging in birding by ear offers a multitude of benefits. Firstly, it enhances the overall birding experience, allowing enthusiasts to fully immerse themselves in the natural environment. By focusing on auditory cues, birders develop a heightened sense of awareness, tuning in to the subtle melodies that fill the air. This deep connection with nature can foster a sense of tranquility and mindfulness.

Discover additional species.

It’s very likely you may hear a bird before you see it.  Furthermore, birding by ear might expand the range of species that can be identified, as, in areas of dense foliage, the birds might be hidden and simply not visible. Other birds may be difficult to spot due to their small size or well-camouflaged plumage. In either case, their vocalizations are often distinct and carry over long distances. This means that birders can detect and identify birds that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The differences between vocalizations.

Each species of bird has its own repertoire, made up of all vocalizations–songs, calls, rattles, cackles, chirps, trills, or whistles.  Some birds will even use their wings to make sounds and even these can be used for species identification.

Bird songs.

Bird vocalizations come in a variety of forms, each serving a different purpose. One common type is the “song,” a melodious and complex vocalization predominantly produced by male birds during the breeding season. Songs serve to attract mates and defend territories. They are often repetitive, with distinct patterns and phrases that vary between species.  However, in the tropics, we find that females also often sing, so we can’t necessarily assume that a singing bird is a male.

Bird calls.

On the other hand, “calls” are shorter and simpler vocalizations that birds use for communication within their social groups. Calls can serve various functions, such as alerting others to the presence of predators, indicating danger, or maintaining contact with their flock or each other.  In addition to an alarm, calls can often be used to signal aggression, as we see in this video of Southern Lapwings.

 

 
While songs and calls share similarities, they can be distinguished by their characteristics and purposes. Songs are generally more elaborate, consisting of a series of notes or phrases repeated in a particular sequence. Calls, on the other hand, tend to be shorter, with simpler patterns or single notes. Understanding these differences is crucial for accurate species or behavioral identification.
Some birds will have songs that sound so simple, we might mistake them for a call.  However, if they are vocalized while defending a territory or attracting a mate, they are still considered songs.  So, the function of the vocalization can determine if it is a call or a song.

Chirps, trills, and whistles.

Birds produce a wide range of sounds beyond songs and calls. Chirps, for instance, are short and high-pitched vocalizations, often used as contact calls. Trills are rapid, continuous series of notes that create a buzzing or rolling sound. Whistles, on the other hand, are clear and melodious sounds with a distinct tonal quality. Understanding these variations in sound can further enhance the ability to identify different bird species.

Learn how to identify birds by ear.

To identify birds by sound, one must become familiar with the unique vocalizations of various species. This requires practice, patience, and an understanding of regional variations.

Research bird vocalizations before you travel.

Field guides, online resources, and smartphone apps provide valuable information and audio recordings to aid in the learning process. It is recommended to learn the vocalizaitons of common birds first, as these are the birds you are most likely to hear.  The Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a fabulous resource for studying bird vocalizations.  You may even archive your own bird recordings if you wish!

Take your time with learning bird vocalizations–don’t overwhelm yourself!  Start with a handful of the most common birds (try some of the birds listed below) and learn them well.  You’ll be delighted when you hear one and immediately recognize the species!

A Venezuelan Troupial sings at sunrise on Bonaire.

Refine your own listening skills.

Developing strong listening skills is crucial for successful birding by ear. It involves active and focused attention to the soundscape, filtering out background noise, and honing in on bird vocalizations. Practicing in different environments and seasons can improve the ability to identify specific bird songs. By training the ear to recognize patterns and nuances, birders can become proficient in identifying birds solely by their sound.

If you are able to see the bird vocalizing, that can help cement the song or call in your head, along with a visual image of the bird itself.  If you hear a song or call outside that you cannot recognize, take the opportunity to step outdoors and try to find the singer.

Vocalizations of birds you’ll encounter on Bonaire.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

The whistle call of the Black-bellied Whistling Duck is a distinctive, melodious sound that echoes through wetland marshes. This duck species is known for its unique vocalization, which resembles a clear and high-pitched whistle, starting with a sharp “wee-wee” or “whit-whit” sound, followed by a series of softer, descending notes that create a pleasant, musical tone.

American Flamingo

The American Flamingo communicates through a distinct call, characterized by a soft, low-pitched tone. This vocalization is most commonly heard during courtship displays and group interactions. It adds to the charm of these graceful birds, providing a subtle and melodic ambiance in their wetland habitats. Listening to the American Flamingo’s vocalizations while observing their behaviors can be a captivating experience, as it offers a glimpse into their communication patterns and enhances our understanding of their behavior in their natural environment.

Scaly-naped Pigeon

The Scaly-naped Pigeon is the largest of Bonaire’s pigeons and doves and is endemic to the Caribbean region. Its most distinguishing feature is the “scaly” patch of feathers on the nape of its neck, giving it its name.   These birds can inhabit a variety of habitats, but look for them mostly in forested area or in areas of mature home gardens. 

Bare-eyed Pigeon

The Bare-eyed Pigeon produces a captivating and unique song that resonates in tropical and subtropical forests. Their song is a deep, resonant cooing sound that varies in intensity and pitch, creating a soothing and calming effect. The call typically consists of a repetitive “rwhoh…woh-hu-whOAh…woh-hu-whOAh..woh-hu-whOAh…” pattern, with each note delivered with a distinctive emphasis. The Bare-eyed Pigeon’s melodious song serves various purposes, including attracting mates, establishing territory, and communicating with flock members.

White-tipped Dove

The White-tipped Dove, with its gentle presence, communicates through a soft and mellow song that can be most easily recognized as blowing over a bottle. This melodious vocalization is characterized by a series of rhythmic cooing sounds, often heard in the early morning or at dusk.

Sora

The call of the Sora is a distinctive vocalization produced by the small, secretive marsh bird which may overwinter on Bonaire or pass through on its migrations. The Sora’s call is a series of descending whinny-like notes, often described as resembling the sound “ker-wee.” This vocalization serves various purposes, and, here on Bonaire, may indicate territory establishment or communication between individuals.

The Sora is known for its elusive nature, frequently inhabiting dense vegetation in wetlands, making it challenging to observe. Its call provides an essential means of identification for birdwatchers seeking to locate and observe this species.

Black-necked Stilt

The Black-necked Stilt, known for its elegant stature, possesses an alarm call that serves as a vigilant warning. When alarmed or disturbed, they emit a sharp, high-pitched “kip” or “kek” sound. This distinct vocalization sends “pay attention” alerts not only to their own companions but also serves as a first alert to potential dangers to other nearby species as well. The alarm call of the Black-necked Stilt pierces through the air, conveying a sense of urgency and prompting heightened awareness within their wetland habitats. These vocal warnings showcase their ability to communicate effectively and contribute to the overall vigilance and survival of all the species inhabiting the same ecosystem.

American Oystercatcher

The American Oystercatcher has a call that is often described as a “wheep,” “peep,” “pip,” or “hueep.” These calls can be heard from a long distance, making them ideal for communication in the open environments where these birds live.  They may utilize these calls for a variety of purposes, including attracting mates, defending territories, giving alarm calls, or communicating with their chicks.

In the audio call provided here,  you’ll hear an example of the “peep”–a softer call that is often used by chicks to beg for food or by adults to communicate with each other at close range.

American Golden Plover

The American Golden Plover, a remarkable migratory bird, emits a haunting and plaintive call during its migration. This evocative whistle, reminiscent of a sad flute, carries across coastal plains, signaling the bird’s passage as it journeys thousands of miles between its Arctic breeding grounds and its South American wintering sites.

Here on Bonaire, the American Golden Plover is most successfully observed during fall migration. However, it is usually present during spring migration as well, with a smaller number of birds passing through Bonaire.

Southern Lapwing

The alarm call of the Southern Lapwing is a sharp and piercing sound that alerts its presence in open wetlands and grasslands. This medium-sized shorebird is known for its distinctive and vocal nature, and its alarm call is no exception. When the Southern Lapwing perceives a potential threat or danger, it emits a series of loud, repetitive, and high-pitched “keek-keek-keek” or “kleep-kleep-kleep” calls. These alarm calls not only serve to warn other lapwings in the vicinity but also act as a deterrent to potential predators. The piercing nature of their alarm calls makes them hard to ignore and adds to the soundscape of their habitat.

Lesser Yellowlegs

The Lesser Yellowlegs is a migratory shorebird found year-round on Bonaire, albeit with greater populations in the winter months. Known for its distinctive vocalization, the bird’s call serves as an important aspect of its communication and behavior. The call of the Lesser Yellowlegs is a clear, high-pitched “tu-tu-tu” or “tu-lu-lu,” often repeated in flight or while foraging.

This vocalization serves multiple purposes, including territory defense, mate attraction, and coordination among individuals. The calls of both males and females play a role in pair bonding and maintaining communication while migrating or foraging in wetland habitats.

Laughing Gull

The Laughing Gull is aptly named for its distinctive and unmistakable call, which resembles hearty laughter. Their typical call is a raucous and high-pitched “ha-ha-ha” or “ha-ha-ha-ha” sound, reminiscent of human laughter. This vocalization is often heard during their breeding season and serves as a form of communication among individuals within their colonies.  In addition to their characteristic call, Laughing Gulls also have a flight call that differs from their typical vocalization. While in flight, they emit a series of shorter and more rapid “kuk-kuk-kuk” or “kree-kree-kree” calls. This flight call aids in maintaining cohesion within their flocks during movement and foraging flights.

Least Tern

The call of the Least Tern is a distinctive sound that echoes along the coastal shores of Bonaire, heard mostly in the summer months when these birds can be observed on Bonaire.

These diminutive seabirds, known for their small size and striking white plumage, produce a series of high-pitched calls that are often described as a sharp “kip” or “kip-kip” sound, which is produced as they hover or dart over their nesting colonies on sandy beaches or salt marshes.

Common Tern

The Common Tern is a seabird that will visit Bonaire during the summer months and is known to breed on the island. The call of the Common Tern is a sharp, distinctive “kee-arr” or “kree-kree,” often delivered in flight or while perched.

These vocalizations serve various purposes within the tern’s life cycle. During the breeding season, Common Terns use their calls for mate attraction, territory defense, and communication between pairs, as their calls help establish and maintain pair bonds.

Green Heron

The Green Heron is a small and secretive heron species known for its rather harsh vocalization. Their call is a series of sharp and loud “skeow” or “kyow” notes, often repeated rapidly in a rhythmic pattern. The call is distinct, which helps the Green Heron communicate with other individuals and establish territories during the breeding season.

Apart from their typical call, Green Herons also produce softer and more subdued “coo” or “glok” sounds during courtship displays or when interacting with their chicks.

Osprey

The call of an Osprey is a distinctive and high-pitched whistling sound that carries over open water and coastal regions. Their vocalization is often described as a sharp “cheep” or “chi-eeek” call, repeated in quick succession. This call is frequently heard during their aerial displays and interactions with other Ospreys.

Ospreys are highly vocal birds, especially during the breeding season when they communicate with their mates and offspring using a variety of calls. Additionally, their vocalizations may serve as territorial markers and help establish boundaries around their nesting sites.

White-tailed Nightjar

The White-tailed Nightjar is a nocturnal bird, communicating with a unique, ethereal, almost haunting call. Their vocalization is a whistle, which is quite easily heard in the hours after sunset or before sunrise, when it is the only bird sound you will hear.

The call of the White-tailed Nightjar carries a mysterious allure, evoking a sense of tranquility and intrigue.  Follow the sound to find the White-tailed Nightjar.

Crested Caracara

The Crested Caracara is a native bird of prey with a unique vocal repertoire. When it comes to a juvenile’s begging call, they emit a series of high-pitched and whining sounds, often resembling a repetitive “ki-ki-ki-ki” or “kee-kee-kee” call. These vocalizations are used to communicate their hunger and prompt adults to provide food.

The rattle call of the Crested Caracara is a harsh and rattling sound, similar to a machine-like “rrr-r-rrr.” This call is often heard during aerial displays, territorial disputes, or when they feel threatened.

The Crested Caracara also produces a distinctive and raucous cackle:  “kow-kow-kow-kow-kow” sound, which is typically heard when they are excited or agitated, or during their interactions with other caracaras.

Yellow-shouldered Parrot

As a highly social bird, the Yellow-shouldered Parrot is a master of vocalizations with a wide repertoire of sounds.  Here you’ll hear the begging calls of young birds, as they ask to be fed, as well as the flock calls of many birds as they gather into the roost area just before sunset.

Brown-throated Parakeet

The Brown-throated Parakeet emits a distinctive call, as well as a separate flight call.  The flight call (a high-pitched “keee” or “kraa” sound) serves as a means of communication during their aerial journeys, allowing them to stay connected and coordinated while flying.

Pearly-eyed Thrasher

The Pearly-eyed Thrasher’s song is a series of slowly sung whistled notes, given at different pitches.

However, as melodious as the song is, the call of the Pearly-eyed Thrasher will surprise you with its harsh and rasping,  almost scolding, “haaaaa” call.

Northern Scrub Flycatcher

Vocalizations of the Northern Scrub Flycatcher can change depending upon the time of day.  The squeaky, whistling call heard here is often vocalized in tandem with its mate, and this call is most often heard just after dawn.

Brown-crested Flycatcher

The Brown-crested Flycatcher’s call is a distinctive, sharp “whit”–often repeated in rapid succession. This neotropical bird’s vocalizations are essential for communication, serving to establish territories and attract mates during the breeding season.

Gray Kingbird

The Gray Kingbird provides a high-pitched and rather harsh characteristic call. Dressed in elegant gray plumage, this species graces its surroundings with a melodic repertoire, featuring sharp, rising notes that echo through the air. Apart from its aesthetic appeal, the call can serve vital functions—marking territories, establishing communication networks within social groups, and can also play a role in courtship rituals. It is quite likely that you may hear this unique call before you observe the bird itself. Although the call can be heard throughout the day, the Gray Kingbird’s call is mostly heard in the early dawn hours or in the hours before or just after sunset.

Tropical Mockingbird

The Tropical Mockingbird is a skilled vocalist and mimic, always serenading us with a large repertoire of songs and calls consisting of a diverse range of musical notes, and trills.

The Tropical Mockingbird’s vocal performances are often heard during the early morning and late afternoon, many times the first you’ll hear in the morning and the last you’ll hear as night descends.

House Sparrow

The House Sparrow expresses its vocal talents through a charming song. Their melodic repertoire consists of chirps, cheeps, and trills.

Throughout the day, their cheerful melodies are present and resonate in fields, gardens, and rural landscapes.

Grasshopper Sparrow

The song of the grasshopper sparrow is a subtle and insect-like trill, consisting of a series of high-pitched, monotone buzzes. This elusive bird’s call is often described as a dry, mechanical sound, easily mistaken for the buzzing of distant grasshoppers, making it a challenge to locate in its grassland habitats.

Bonaire’s Grasshopper Sparrow is the special endemic subspecies Ammodramus savannarum caribaeus. Although the Grasshopper Sparrow in North America is considered of least concern, the caribaeus subspecies is found only on Bonaire and Curacao and is considered threatened.

Venezuelan Troupial

The song of the Venezuelan Troupial is a delightful and melodic performance that fills the air. This bright and colorful bird, introduced here on Bonaire, is known for its enchanting vocal abilities. Their song is a rich medley of musical phrases, composed of whistles, trills, and melodious notes which carry exceptionally long distances.

The Venezuelan Troupial’s song is often described as a series of varied and flutelike sounds, with each phrase delivered with precision and clarity. Their repertoire can include mimicry of other bird species’ calls and environmental sounds, showcasing their impressive vocal flexibility.

Yellow Oriole

The Yellow Oriole captivates with its melodious song as its vocalizations consist of flute-like whistles, trills, and musical phrases. Resonating through local habitats, and also gardens here on Bonaire, the Yellow Oriole’s song adds a delightful element to the natural soundscape.  Known in Papiamentu as the “Dog Oriole,” its call can sound just like a barking dog!

Carib Grackle

The Carib Grackle’s song is a delightful and diverse combination of sounds, often characterized by a mix of whistles, clicks, and varied calls.

The vocalizations of the Carib Grackle can vary regionally.  Generally, their song is high-pitched and “sweet” sounding, while their calls can include “chk”, loud whistles, and rattles.

Yellow Warbler (Golden Group)

The Yellow Warbler (Golden Group) is a native warbler to Bonaire, and shouldn’t be confused with the migrant North American Yellow Warbler, although they are can be difficult to visually distinguish.

The song of the Yellow Warbler (Golden Group) is characterized by a series of distinct musical phrases consisting of a series of high-pitched, clear, and repetitive notes. Males will sing energetically from exposed perches, such as treetops and shrubs, to communicate their presence and intentions to both rivals and potential female partners.

Saffron Finch

The Saffron Finch is known for its melodic and energetic song and metallic calls.  Their vocal repertoire includes trills, chirps, and varied phrases. The song is often heard during courtship and territorial displays and can serve as a means of communication for attracting mates and asserting territory.

Bananaquit

The Bananaquit is recognized for its distinctive song and weak “tsit” calls when foraging for food. It can be heard singing throughout the day, starting at dawn and continuing to sunset, with a soft, high-pitched series of buzzes, almost sounding like an insect.

The Bananaquit found here on Bonaire is an endemic subspecies, so much variation exists in their vocalizations, which can sound different from those found in other regional locations.

Black-faced Grassquit

The Black-faced Grassquit is a small sparrow-like bird native to the Caribbean and northern South America. It is known for its distinctive song, which is described as a weak buzzing ‘tsee-tsee-tsee-seeseesee.’  The song is usually delivered from a low perch, such as a fence post or shrub.

The Black-faced Grassquit is a common bird here on Bonaire, and its song is often heard in open areas such as fields and scrublands. The song is a cheerful and melodic sound, and it is one of the most recognizable bird songs in the region.

Are you ready for your first challenge?  How many species can you identify in this recording?

The dawn chorus is a natural symphony that unfolds at the break of day, often in grasslands, wetlands, forests, and even in your own backyard, along with other habitats around the island.  As the first light of dawn gently illuminates the landscape, a multitude of songbirds, each with its unique melody, join in harmony to create an enchanting cacophony of sound. The chorus is an exuberant display of avian communication, with birds singing to establish territories, attract mates, and announce their presence in the environment.  It’s a magical way to start your day, connecting you immediately to nature’s rhythms.

Listen and see how many different birds you can identify by ear in this 8-minute recording of a dawn chorus in a garden on Bonaire.  (Hint:  There are fourteen different species represented!)

Enjoy birding by ear on your next Bonaire bird-watching excursion.

Birding by ear is an enchanting and rewarding aspect of birdwatching here on Bonaire that allows individuals to connect with nature in a unique way. By tuning in to the melodious symphony of bird songs, enthusiasts can unlock a world of hidden wonders and deepen their appreciation for the avian world. So grab your binoculars, sharpen your listening skills, and embark on a journey of discovery as you explore the captivating art of birding by ear.

(Images and sound recordings courtesy of the author.)

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About the author:

Susan is a certified bird guide, living on Bonaire, in the Dutch Caribbean.Susan has been living on Bonaire for over 30 years. She is a certified bird guide, as well as a topside and underwater photographer. She is a 2016 graduate of the Caribbean Birding Trail Interpretive Guide Course conducted by BirdsCaribbean.

Reach out to Susan

Contact Susan via email, Facebook Messenger, give Susan a call, or simply use the online form below.

If you have any questions in regard to your birding tour on Bonaire, feel free to contact Susan to get answers.  She is always happy to elaborate on routes or best times for a tour based upon your own personal preferences.  Tours can be tailored to your own interests, whether that be birds, photography, or both!

It is also recommended that you do some homework about Bonaire's birds before you visit.  By knowing a little bit about the birds which might be encountered on tour, your enjoyment will be heightened!  Be sure to check out these resources for Bonaire Birding. Reading the Bonaire Bird Blog will also accustom you to the birds that habitually are encountered on Bonaire.

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