The Cape May Vireos
I love to go for walks around the fields in summer, particularly before it gets too hot. The vegetation is always green in summer, and flowers change from week to week. It tends to be quiet, most tourists preferring bed, breakfast or the beach. A stroll to Hidden Valley, The Beanery, Higbee WMA or Cape Island Creek are all great places to go.
Some days can be quiet, because as birds tend to get less vocal through the summer with less need to attract a mate or be territorial. The heat doesn’t help either. Suddenly, there is a loud ‘Spit, and-see-if-I-care’ – whatever it is, it sounds feisty, aggressive, and as though it is having a bad day. It may be close by in a prickly hedge, but invariably doesn’t want to give itself up. You can try “squeaking.” In case you don’t know what ‘squeaking’ is, it’s when you purse your lips, put your fingers to them, and suck air in, to make the meanest noise you can. Yes, birders are weird! What it often does, though, is get the birds curious to see what is creating this disturbing sound that could spell danger. Perhaps a chickadee comes in and starts calling back. Before you know it, birds from everywhere nearby are coming to check the intruder out. But where is your bird with a bad attitude when everything else seems to be showing itself easily?
Suddenly, you see a bird’s head sticking out from the densest part of the hedge. It has a stout bill with a hook at the tip. The head is yellow-green, and it has white eyes. Of course, it must be a White-eyed Vireo. If it was mid-April, it would probably just have gotten back from wintering in Florida or other warmer areas to the south, but it will be in Cape May until September.
There are six regularly occurring species of vireos in Cape May. They are all sized like the largest warblers but have a much sturdier build: thicker-necked, larger-headed, short-tailed, and somewhat pot-bellied. Most have a slight hook to the tip of the bill though it is tough to see. Half of all vireos have “spectacles”—a pale line from the bill to, and around, the eye.
Blue-headed and Yellow-throated Vireos are even spiffier-looking than the White-eye and a bit larger. Their spectacles are bolder on their mainly bluish and yellowish heads—I’m sure you can work out which is which from the color in their names. Yellow-throated Vireo breeds are scattered in oak forest in the northern part of the county, in places like Belleplain.
Yellow-throated’s song is a slow ‘see you, see me’, slurred as though very drunk and taking their time. The Blue-headed, Red-eyed Vireo and most vireos have similar songs, so working out that a sound is a vireo is the easy part, working out the species is much tougher. When vireos are really upset, they all give a harsh gremlin-like chatter. Okay, I don’t know what a gremlin sounds like, but I imagine it would be a chatter of rapidly repeated notes that sound similarly mean, nasty, and devious.
Vireos are fairly common though more often heard than seen due to their propensity to stay hidden. Their song is a great one to learn. It is far from melodious, and it certainly matches the bird. Onomatopoeia, the use of words to capture natural sound, might not be perfect in this case, but the emphatic “SPIT” of the White-eyed, followed by “and see if I care” really catches its attitude. In Bermuda where they are common residents, the locals describe their song as “chick-of-the village.” Whatever works to help you remember the sound is good. Coming from England as a young adult, using words to learn totally new sounds was helpful.
Red-eyed Vireo is the only other Cape Island breeder found in deciduous woodlands. All six species of vireo are easiest to find on migration in both spring (late-April through May)and fall (August to October)and can all be found in large flocks with warblers. Yes, they mix well. Red-eyes are by far the commonest with most feeding flocks having several. They are chunky like other vireos. Always look for the striped, black, white, and gray head.
Vireos always move slowly and methodically, eating mostly insects, but also berries, and it’s not uncommon to see them with Pokeberry stains. Their bill, heavier than warblers, enables them to take on larger insects and fruit. The hook-tips presumably help to grab food. Sometimes you will see them with a caterpillar, beating it against a branch to soften it up for dinner. Yes, nature is often brutal, and vireos are bruisers.
Recent DNA research shows them as cousins of crows and jays. At first this seems odd, but when you look at their thick legs and bill, plus the way they move, it seems less surprising. Watching the way that they tilt their head to the side and seem to be carefully thinking things out also seems to give the impression they are smart like crows and jays—as is their ruthlessness.
Are they? I don’t know but it is fun to just watch and listen to them, and to wonder what they are thinking.