A few clouds drifted against an azure sky, and a faint breeze carried the forest’s scents like the memory of childhood summers. In the dappled light, floating orbs of insects hovered in place.
The only sounds were our footsteps and the rich soundscape of chirps, tweets and chitters of the forest’s more permanent residents.
Low in the bushes ahead, a brown bird hopped along quickly, on the lookout for bugs. It was partially hidden, and quite frankly, not very interesting looking.
We were about to move on when, within the forest’s rich musical mosaic, a new voice entered: the ethereal, flute-like song of a veery (Catharus fuscescens). We stopped to savor this shy bird’s downward, spiraling song. These are some of the most complex and beautiful notes to be heard in the Chesapeake watershed.
The foraging bird ahead shot up to a hickory tree and landed on an exposed branch about 20 feet off the ground. He tossed back his head in song. This was another veery, staking claim to his territory.
In poor light, veeries are rather drab: brown on top, white below with some darker throat streaks. Luckily, we had both good light and binoculars, so a more nuanced palette was evident. As the veery sang, he revealed the reddish-brown stripes on his pale buff throat. His chest was the color of weak tea, and it, too, was streaked with rufous stripes. His sides were a ghostly gray and his belly white.
The veery has a narrow white eye ring and a pale tan face. The crown and back are brown with a strong hint of cinnamon throughout.
The bird is a little smaller than its thrush cousin, the robin. It has a similar profile, with a plump body and longish legs. In veeries, the sexes look alike.
Veeries are long-distance migrants. During the summer breeding season, Western and Midwestern birds congregate along the U.S.-Canada border. The range in the East is much broader, including the Maritime Provinces, New England, the Great Lakes, the mid-Atlantic and down the Appalachian Mountains into Georgia.
In the fall, these birds will take the long, trans-Gulf route to South America. Some veeries will continue down throughout the tropics as far as Rio de Janeiro.
During both the summer and winter, the birds prefer moist, deciduous forests. During migration, they are much less selective, and any woodlot will suffice.
The singing stopped and the veery we were watching swooped back down to the forest floor to renew its foraging. They eat all manner of beetles, ants, flies, wasps and caterpillars. During the late summer and fall, the diet shifts to berries and fruit.
Because their numbers are still relatively robust, veeries are considered a species of low conservation concern. However, the population has fallen slowly over the last 50 years and now represents a 30 percent decline from its estimated 1966 population.
The gradual loss of moist woodlands from our topography is the likely cause. The population of white-tailed deer may also be a factor. Deer have eliminated the dense understory of many forests, thus removing prime habitat for veeries.
The best time to see veeries in the Chesapeake region is late spring and early summer. That’s prime breeding time, and males are busy singing to attract mates and establish territory.
As is common with most songbirds, veeries are most active at dawn and dusk. The spiraling flute-like song is easily distinguished from other bird songs.
Like other birds, veeries lack a larynx; what we usually call a voice box with vocal cords. Instead, they have a vocal structure called a syrinx. Birds have vibrating membranes at the base of the trachea (windpipe) where it branches into the two lungs. By controlling the airflow along these membranes, birds are able to produce an amazing array of vocalizations. Their range extends from imitations of human voices by mynas and parrots to the guttural grunts of herons to the beautiful tunes we typically associate with songbirds.
This remarkable organ even allows birds like the veery to sing more than one note at a time. The otherworldliness of the veery’s rich descending song is the result of the bird singing in exceedingly close harmony with itself.
As we stood watching the veery forage for food, the first bird erupted into song again. I was struck by the contrast. Here was an unremarkable looking bird capable of extraordinary vocal beauty. I thought about Susan Boyle, the plain Englishwoman with the angelic voice who became an internet sensation a few years ago.
There are plenty of veeries in our lives, I realized. Hiding in plain sight, they go unnoticed and unappreciated. Then, when least expected and against our perceptions, they reveal their exceptional gifts. We are left with the shock of wonder and delight, and a sobering reminder that not all beauty is unveiled at first glance.
To listen to a veery’s song, go to Cornell University’s unparalleled bird song library: www:\\allaboutbirds.org/veery/sounds. Click on the speaker icon.