Monday, April 24, 2017

The bizarre song of the Yellow-breasted Chat

It was clear and sunny, but surprisingly chilly here at sunrise. Though it would make its way into the mid '70's in a couple of hours, it was unexpectedly 30 degrees cooler than that right now in this river valley. Birds were singing and calling and flying about actively this early April morning near Escondido. While my attention flitted from bird to bird, a distant birdsong was trying to interject itself into my consciousness.

"chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck."

No, not rolling enough for Cactus Wren. It's not a Mockingbird, either. No, no, it's completely wrong for Roadrunner. I know that call, but I just can't place it.

A few minutes later the "chuck-chuck-chuck" call joined a whistled "whoit, whoit" and then a crow-like "caw, caw, caw" and some cackling. Oh! Yellow-breasted Chat. Of course!

Yellow-breasted Chat
Yellow-breasted Chat in full-throated song. Escondido, California. April 5, 2017. Greg Gillson.
Except when singing so brazenly, the chat is reclusive, shy, wary. But in spring and summer--even at night--it makes a joyful noise in the densest riparian thickets.

This chat was a week earlier than the typical first arrival of the species locally. When he has more male competition, and the attention of females when they arrive in a week or so, then watch out. The varied song now will take on a fevered pitch. The flight display song the male gives to the female is both amazing and bizarre. The male sings its varied song, but rises slowly in circles in the air. His wingbeats are mechanically exaggerated, his head lifted in song, his long tail pumping wildly, and his feet dangling down, trailing below as if forgotten. When he reaches a pinnacle--hovering, down he glides--ever so slowly--as his singing and his flight slowly come to an end.

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat in colored pencil. Greg Gillson.
Yellow-breasted Chat in colored pencil. Greg Gillson.