Early fall is the time of the year when most birders awake from a couple of months of low-excitement time following the summer breeding season and begin to think of what the fall migration season will bring. Mornings begin to be cooler and if you get up early, it is possible to get in three or four hours of comfortable birding before the heat ramps up. This is the time of the day and year when the summer resident birds are actively feeding and preparing for their upcoming migration to the tropics.
One interesting member of this group of soon-to-be traveling migrants is the White-eyed Vireo, a gray to greenish-olive songbird that spends a lot of his time vocalizing. Vireos in general are fairly reclusive birds hanging out in brushy habitats and staying out of sight most of the time. However, there is no doubt as to his presence with his song of variable five to seven note phrases that abruptly end with sharp two-noted “are-tee.” Some birders think it sounds like “quick with the “beer check!” After you get familiar with the song, you can decide what you are hearing and choose your own interpretation.
White-eyed Vireos are not considered “spooky” or tend to shy away from close contact with humans, but their choice of habitat makes it hard to get a clear look at them. That they are also very active adds to the frustration of trying to get that good definitive look. The adults have white irises, from which their name was derived. Young immature birds have dark irises, no doubt designed to confuse birders. A more visual identification feature is their yellow spectacles, similar to the Yellow-throated Vireo’s spectacles. Another good field mark is the presence of two white wing bars.
If you study your field guides, it is not difficult to separate the various other Hill Country vireo species, such as Black-capped, Bell’s, Yellow-throated, Red-eyed, Gray, and Blue-headed vireos. Where you might be confused is trying to separate them from migrating female warblers who are similar in size and plumage. An easy identifier is the bill shape – a blunt, slightly hooked bill for vireos and a sharply pointed bill for warblers. The trick is getting them to sit still long enough to get a good look at the bills, as both are very active feeders.
White-eyed Vireos are common spring and summer nesters in the Hill Country. Like other vireos, they build tightly woven cups securely attached to flat forks in a leafy deciduous tree or shrub branch five to ten feet above ground level. You will not likely see the nest until the fall when the leaves fall off. By that time the nesting mission has been accomplished. If you by chance find a nest, the female will sit tight at very close range, so show her the courtesy to move away.
White-eyed Vireos are found in the eastern half our country and northward into southern Canada. Their numbers will increase as the migration gets into full swing. Some are known to spend the winter months here in the Hill Country, forsaking the tropics. We frequently find them on our area Christmas Bird Counts. With the leaves missing on the deciduous trees, the birds are much more easily seen. The over wintering birds get a big head start towards selecting the most favorable habitats for nesting next spring.
If you are walking in the mornings this fall, or live in a brushy area, listen for their loud slightly harsh song with an abrupt ending. Cannot guarantee you will actually see the bird, but you will know his name. If you stand very still and be patient, the curious bird might even show his face. If you are not lucky to see one now, you will know to listen and look for them next spring.