Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #14: Veery

Deep in the woods of the mid-Atlantic Piedmont and the forests of the Appalachians, one may find a veery, a member of the thrush family. Slightly smaller than a robin, the veery has a rufous-brown back, white belly, and light rufous spotting at the top of the breast. In the dark, moist understory preferred by this species, individuals can be hard to spot. A veery will scurry along the forest floor from one inconspicuous place to another, all the while keeping a close eye on passers-by. Luckily, sight is not the only way to enjoy this species.

At right: Veery / Photo by NPS via Wikimedia

Despite its plain appearance, the veery is a prodigious songster. In fact, it sings my favorite bird song. The notes are resonant and cascade downward in a long stream. Even over cheap computer speakers, the song is beautiful; in a forest, the song has a wild and unearthly quality. Like other thrush songs, the veery's song is well suited to reproduction in standard musical notation. Here is one attempt to transcribe veery songs. While the instrumental version can match the pitch and rhythm of the song, it cannot match the beauty of the veery's performance.

Apparently I am not alone in my liking for the veery's song. Here is The Veery, a poem by Henry Van Dyke (text courtesy of Bartleby.com):

THE MOONBEAMS over Arno’s vale in silver flood were pouring,
When first I heard the nightingale a long-lost love deploring.
So passionate, so full of pain, it sounded strange and eerie;
I longed to hear a simpler strain,—the wood-notes of the veery.

The laverock sings a bonny lay above the Scottish heather; 5
It sprinkles down from far away like light and love together;
He drops the golden notes to greet his brooding mate, his dearie;
I only know one song more sweet,—the vespers of the veery.

In English gardens, green and bright and full of fruity treasure,
I heard the blackbird with delight repeat his merry measure: 10
The ballad was a pleasant one, the tune was loud and cheery,
And yet, with every setting sun, I listened for the veery.

But far away, and far away, the tawny thrush is singing;
New England woods, at close of day, with that clear chant are ringing:
And when my light of life is low, and heart and flesh are weary, 15
I fain would hear, before I go, the wood-notes of the veery.

The nightengale, laverock (sky lark), and blackbird are all European birds whose songs were celebrated by British poets. We have The Blackbird by Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lover's Morning Salute to his Mistress by Robert Burns, and Ode to a Nightengale by John Keats. (One can certainly find more examples for each bird.) As the poet suggests, the veery deserves its place alongside these renowned songsters.

Links for recordings of veeries:
If you want to look for breeding veeries in Washington, DC, check in Rock Creek Park and Archbold-Glover Park. In migration, veeries may appear at either of those sites or at the National Arboretum. In the Blue Ridge, check the forests at higher elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Cross-posted at Blue Ridge Gazette and A DC Birding Blog.