A spectrogram (visualization of sound) of the complex song of the Blue-headed Vireo.

I posted songs and calls of the Blue-headed Vireo a few months ago (here) that included its primary song, delightful arced trills, chatter calls, and even a question-like call (“zerwee?”). But during the 2020 field season, I was treated to a song of the Blue-headed vireo that was completely new to me — a “complex” song! This fast, mostly soft, rambling song was given during a tremendous performance, over 30 minutes, that included three sets of “complex” songs: at 40+s, 8+s, and 15+s respectively.

Here is a short clip of the recording made on June 12th on the campus of Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park:

In a blog post in Earbirding, Andrew Spencer, summarizes and shares examples of what was known to-date about complex songs of vireos in “How fast is that vireo singing?” Of the Blue-headed Vireo he says “there are perhaps more recordings of complex song from this species than any other”. That said, I have many experienced birding friends, and bird sound recordists, who have not yet personally heard the complex song of a Blue-headed Vireo. One friend, who is deeply experienced (over 3,800 recordings in Cornell’s Macaulay Library) and has had the pleasure of both hearing and recording the Blue-headed Vireo, was still impressed, specifically with the length of the 40+ second complex song above. Remarkable, for sure. And as Andrew Spencer notes in the conclusion of his blog post about the many things still unknown/undocumented regarding complex songs of vireos, it “will take someone being out in the field at the right time and the right place, and having a mic ready to get it on tape!”

I’ll add that it also takes patience. The three complex songs do not occur until more than 21 minutes into the vireo’s 30 minute recorded performance! As trained in sound recording by Greg Budney, former curator of the Cornell’s Macaulay Library, my technique in recording is to gradually get closer to the bird so it does not fly away before I get to record much, or any, of its song. (This sometimes results in audio recording — but not seeing — the bird, as in this case, too). Hence the beginning of the full 30 minutes was farther away and captures more “white noise” (in this case crashing surf on the rocky coast) while the last 15 minutes are better quality. I was close, stood absolutely still, and recorded continuously with little to no other “noise” from the environment (or myself) — a combination of training, patience, and pure luck!

The full recording can be found at the Macaulay Library here. Skip ahead about 20 minutes if you just want to hear all three complex songs over 10 captivating minutes. For those very short on time, who only want to listen to each of the complex songs, they can be found at 21:26.5m (40+s long), 23:53.5 (8+s long), and 29:06.5 (15+s long).

For more about Blue-headed Vireos in general, start with Cornell’s All About Birds.