Gil MacAdam was outside, working on his roof, when he heard a nasal "eeek" sound that he recognized. A rose-breasted grosbeak, he thought. What a treat. And indeed the bird with the triangular rose-colored patch on its chest was in his yard, using a gumbo-limbo tree as a perch during its trip north.
MacAdam, who lives in unincorporated Broward County near Fort Lauderdale, takes pride in distinguishing the various tweets and chirps that provide outdoor serenades, and "bird listening," he says, nicely rounds out the hobby of bird watching. "I can take a walk and I could have my eyes closed, and you're hearing the different calls to the right and left and before you and behind you," he says. "And if you know bird songs well enough, you'll be able to identify most of the species."
His knowledge comes from decades of enjoying the outdoors with binoculars and bird-identification books. In his wildlife-friendly yard alone, he's counted 86 species and can whistle impressive imitations of many of them. As the environmental administrator for Broward County Parks and Recreation, he's also happy to share his enthusiasm for deciphering peeps and twitters by teaching bird language in Birding by Ear at Secret Woods Nature Center in Dania.
Bird calls vary not only by species but by situation. Staking out territory, for instance, doesn't sound the same as flirting with a potential mate. Like humans, birds speak most sweetly when they're out to impress. "Breeding calls usually are the most melodious," MacAdam says.
You don't even need a class to get acquainted with birdspeak, he adds. Just go outside and pay attention. A birding guide, however, does come in handy.
To remember a particular call, try associating it with a particular word, or a sound that can be spelled out, MacAdam suggests. For example, the call of the pileated woodpecker sounds like, "Cup, cup, cup, cup." A catbird makes a mewing sound. Carolina wrens say something like "tea kettle, tea kettle." Blue jays chase off potential predators, such as owls and snakes, by shrieking, "Jay, jay, jay, jay."
The olive-sided flycatcher's call has been described as a spirited whistle that sounds like, "Quick, three beers," MacAdam says. But be careful: If you are anywhere near a bar, you probably aren't hearing birds. In fact, the flycatcher generally doesn't fly this far south.
Birding by Ear will take place every Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m., September 22 through October 6. Four field trips are included. Cost is $30, and preregistration is required. Secret Woods Nature Center is located at 2701 W. State Rd. 84, Dania. Call 954-791-1030.