Re: El Polin Strange Call (Swainson's)

Richard Bradus

Yup - it's a Swainson's Thrush, making its "Whit-burrr" (or Churr) call.

Thanks to Alvaro Jaramillo, John Sterling, Ralph and Josiah for their insights.

There was an interesting mix of opinions, ranging from Song Sparrow (which, after all, is also heard singing on the recording), to Bewick's Wren to a squirrel - but lest anyone scoff, Josiah wrote that he sometimes calls it the "squirrel call", which is an easy way to remember it.

While a bit embarrassed, as John noted that he pointed it out to me on Thursday at the same spot (I guess I missed it, intent on the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and trying to duck the rain), I shouldn't feel so bad as even a few more experienced birders were also unfamiliar with this call. Alvaro kindly sent some notes of the range of Swainson's calls with descriptions from the "Birds of the World" series, consisting of the "Whit-burrr that I heard, the "Peep", the familiar "Bink" or "plink" (what I refer to as the "water droplet" call), and the "Peeeeeer". Also noted that the "Churr" call may be more frequent late in the day, which certainly fits in this instance.

Still, the coarseness of this call amazes me, given the softness of the much more common "plink" calls and the upward spiraling, almost ethereal song of this species. I just have not had enough experience with all the variations - at least until this spring - it seems like there have been an unusual number of Swainson's arriving or migrating through our area. Maybe I just haven't gone in the past to the right areas at the right times, but certainly I've heard more Swainson's songs and calls in the past few days than in the past few years here in SF.

In any case, this particular bird's call is an interesting variation. I searched for some time through a couple of sources (still haven't checked Xenocanto though), and found very few examples. In particular, in the Macaulay Library there are plenty of recordings of Swainson's songs and the plink calls, a few of the peep and even the peeeer calls, but only a couple of this Whit-burrr - and those were somewhat different from the call I recorded. Therefore, I have submitted an eBird checklist ( and added the recording, so hopefully once the backlog of audio processing at eBird is resolved it will be available to all and preserved in the Macaulay archive.

Thanks again to all who responded. I learned something valuable. And, as there has certainly been an influx of interesting migrants in the past couple of weeks, it bears emphasis that all of us would be wise to follow any unusual songs and calls that we may encounter - it may turn out to be something special.

Richard Bradus
San Francisco

On Saturday, May 16, 2020, 09:27:31 PM PDT, Ralph McKinnon <mckinnon_ralph@...> wrote:

I’m guessing it’s the churr call of a Swainson’s Thrush but am looking forward to seeing other opinions. 

Ralph McKinnon

On Saturday, May 16, 2020, 8:40 PM, kim <leo811sf@...> wrote:

Will be interested in knowing what this is.  Sounds very similar to what I heard in my yard today. 


Be Kind. Lady Karma is Always Watching.

On May 16, 2020, at 8:05 PM, "Richard Bradus via" <grizzledjay@...> wrote:

Hi all

Earlier this evening I made it down to El Polin and, in the company of Connor Cochrane, whiffed on grosbeaks though there were multiple Swainson's Thrush, Scrub Jays, Song Sparrows and a bunch of smaller birds. While listening to both calls and songs of Swainson's Thrushes there was a period of silence, then we heard this short, rather harsh call repeated from dense cover in the shrubs behind the famous elderberry. (Hopefully the .wav file will go with this message, either below or as an attachment).

We were stumped. Could this be a Swainson's??? Connor suggested maybe a Catbird, which is intriguing, but it doesn't sound like the catbird a few years ago in the Botanical Garden. Maybe a mad, feral catbird?

Anyway, any thoughts or, hopefully, a definitive ID would be very much appreciated.

Richard Bradus
San Francisco 

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