It is one of those birds that sneak under the radar for just about everyone. At about six inches and staying well tucked away in bushes, prickly thickets, and woodland, it is found in just about every spot except for marshes and downtown Cape May. Having said that, the White-eyed Vireo is easy to walk past, and even harder to get a good look at.
I like them. They are spunky little characters. Hopping deliberately inside the foliage, usually head-height or above, they scope inquisitively, tipping their head as they peer around for a wide variety of insects and grubs. They will hold bigger prey with their feet against a branch, and their hooked bills are perfect for ripping them apart. In summer they are usually alone singing away at all times of the day but on migration they often join roving mixed flocks and are a lot quieter.
Their burry two-part ‘spit..and see if I care’ sums up their feisty attitude. Only the male sings in summer, but on the wintering grounds far to the south the female will also sing, a phenomenon that we are becoming more aware of for many species. They sing for many of the same reasons as males: to defend their space and to announce their presence. Some females of other species sing to attract a mate. Like so much in ornithology, we are still a long way from understanding even many basic things.
Listening for White-eyes’ song is by far the best way to find them. Sometimes they get a little ticked off at something, perhaps a snake or owl, and they will give a snarling chatter that would go quite well in a horror movie. They are no doubt telling them in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of their territory.
Like many birds, their mate often changes from year to year, though they are a loyal monogamous couple through the summer. They take it in turns to incubate the eggs and they both bring food for the chicks. They typically build their nest in the fork of a branch. It is supported by a shell made of cobwebs and silk. Inside is a concoction of plants, leaves, bark and hair all beautifully woven together; it really is art.
Once upon a time I really knew my nests. You could say I had a misspent youth. I started collecting eggs when I was six years old, just as my dad had done and his dad had done. Yes, it was a family tradition back then. Egg-collecting is clearly wrong. It was very popular until the 90s but is no longer part of British outdoor tradition. However, there was a very strong conservation message from my dad about only ever taking one egg and minimizing disturbance to the bird. It has many parallels to hunting in America. It was collecting eggs that lead me to becoming a birder when I was 10 years old.
There are several species of vireo that pass through Cape May on migration and the Red-eyed Vireo also breeds in the area in small numbers. Vireos are a little larger than warblers, move more methodically and have hooked tips to their small but stout bills.
White-eyed Vireos, not surprisingly, have a pale iris that looks white. Just to confuse matters, the young ones have a dark iris till they migrate south in fall. I think we all wonder who decides on labeling birds with names that are so often confusing or could at least be better.
White-eyes are quite colorful compared to a lot of vireos. Lemon-yellow breast sides contrast with a grey head that is highlighted by golden spectacles. This head pattern is always the best thing to key in on. Their backs are green and they have two bold wing bars.
White-eyed Vireos might be tough to see, but once you get their sound down, you will probably hear them all over the place. With patience you will see them peering out at you with attitude and face pattern that will make it a new unique friend. ■