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A Secret Life in the Treetops.

August 4, 2012

Red-Eyed Vireo

In forests, birds are less numerous in the middle of the woods than they are on the edge, where the trees meet open areas.  This is an example of the edge effect.  Where 2 ecosystems meet, there tends to be more variety and greater numbers of living things taking advantage of both areas.  However, the large amount of interior forest is a ready home for some species, a definite niche to fill.  And one of the most common birds to be found deeper in the North American forest in the warm season is the Red-Eyed Vireo.

But first- what is a vireo?

Vireos are the wood warbler’s lesser-known, plainer cousin.

They like the treetops- forests are ideal habitats for them.  Much like wood warblers, they comb endlessly through the leaves for insects to eat.  They winter in Central or South America.  Unlike warblers, they tend to be a bit larger, have bigger bills, and are less colorful.  And they are not as easy to see.  So warblers tend to get more attention.

The Red-Eyed Vireo is a record-breaking singer.  This species holds the world record for most bird songs in a day- 20,000!  It sings constantly from dusk to dawn in the summer woodland, sounding very much like a bland Robin.  If one is singing in an area of the forest, you tend to notice more its absence when it stops than the constant singing, which is almost a background soundtrack.

This bird isn’t the easiest bird to get a good look at, either.  It often is in the midst of the leafy upper levels of tall trees, foraging for food.  And it blends in fairly well with its surroundings, being olive-colored, though it does have striking red eyes and an eye-stripe on the face- if you can get a good look.

These birds build nests in the forks of branches, made from various materials and held together by spider web.  The following picture shows a vireo with a possible spider web in its beak.

One morning this last May, I paused in a hike at a local Metro Park.  I sat on a bench along the path in a mature patch of woods, and gazed straight upwards for several minutes (I bet I made quite a sight for the bicyclists pedaling by).  After a while I noticed birds moving through the treetops far above me- they were larger than warblers and moved and perched in a different fashion- they were Red-Eyed Vireos.  It struck me how different their world was, how relatively isolated these birds were from the point of view of us ground-dwellers, or even from birds who lived closer to the ground.  They went about their search for insects, examining leaves methodically.  They’ve adapted well to this environment.

It’s always a treat to get a good photograph of one of these birds.  They are true forest dwellers who call the sun-dappled treetops home.  And it looks like a serene life, at least from the ground.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2012 11:23 pm

    Great post! I hear this one a lot here, but very seldom catch more than a fleeting glimpse of one. They are sure elusive!

    I have tried for a long time to identify another bird who sings incessantly in the deep part of the forest, usually along streams. I’ve never been able to spot one, but they have a call very similar to the Worm-eating warbler. Are you familiar with it?

    • August 4, 2012 11:28 pm

      Oh now that’s interesting- I’m not sure what that may be, Montucky! Then again, a good mystery to work on is not a bad thing. Imagine knowing what everything you see and hear is, that would be a sad day for me!

  2. Jo Woolf permalink
    August 5, 2012 4:57 am

    Lovely photos that capture the bird’s character. Well done with your tree-gazing!

  3. August 5, 2012 8:17 am

    Great shots! It’s hard to capture these treetop dwellers.

  4. August 5, 2012 9:31 am

    I like your comment to montucky (above). I’m always working on several mysteries. For instance, why do we have a lot of young sassafras trees on our property, but no mature trees? And why did we have a ton of different butterflies and fritillaries in early spring, but mostly just swallowtails now? Always something to ponder in nature.

  5. August 5, 2012 1:46 pm

    Great and informative post, Traci. I have never seen a Red-eyed Vireo. However, I just noticed the checklist for my area, and they are listed as uncommon. (Usually present, but hard to fine.) I will have to keep a sharper lookout for one.

  6. August 5, 2012 1:56 pm

    I love the first two birds caught in the middle of song. I hear them often here, too … but I seldom get a glimpse…. lucky you.

    • August 5, 2012 3:24 pm

      I was so happy to get those pictures- usually I’d merely glimpse them and get an ok-sort-of picture, but this one posed for me. That’s happened once so far this year for me!

  7. August 5, 2012 2:45 pm

    Enjoyed your post. Love what you say about “gazing straight upwards for several minutes” with others around. For me, it’s saying words out loud. Best wishes, Ellen

    • August 5, 2012 3:26 pm

      Thanks, Ellen! One needs a bit of a thick skin in certain situations, which is a good thing, really 🙂

  8. August 5, 2012 5:15 pm

    I hope his soundtrack aiways plays in the background for as long as I’m in the woods. The other day I was on a hike and suddenly realized that the woods had gone completely quiet-not even the sound of an acorn dropping-and it was eerie.

    • August 5, 2012 7:40 pm

      That’s very eerie when it happens! Red-Eyed Vireos are the most reliable sound in the forest 🙂

  9. August 5, 2012 8:24 pm

    What a pretty little bird. Interesting facts, especially about using spider web in nest construction. Hope you don’t have a stiff neck from watching!

  10. August 5, 2012 11:44 pm

    You’ve got some great shots of this vireo! I was unable to get a photo of one this year, so a nice treat to see yours!

  11. August 6, 2012 3:50 pm

    Awesome photos. The vireo is a magnificent fellow. I hadn’t thought of the forest and the edges being separate eco-systems, that’s interesting food for thought. 🙂

    • August 6, 2012 7:04 pm

      Thanks, E.C.! Walking through a forest is a lot more serene then walking along its edge 🙂

  12. August 8, 2012 4:34 am

    Just loved this post and your beautiful photographs, too! Am grateful that Lynn, of Composer in the Garden, sent me to your site, Traci!

  13. sandy permalink
    August 9, 2012 5:10 pm

    I love the little birds, but have only seen one red-eyed vireo that I can recall. Your photos are lovely. Even the leaves are pretty!

  14. August 11, 2012 9:47 am

    I am always impressed with your bird photos. I even failed at getting the chipmunk raiding my sister’s potted cherry tomato plant (the phone camera was hopelessly outmatched)

    • September 1, 2012 6:54 pm

      Thanks Inger- but I have hundreds of terrible photos that never make it to this blog! 🙂

  15. August 12, 2012 1:36 am

    What an adventure and discovery. Indeed , the treetop is filled with life and fascinating birds.

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