I’ve been doing plenty of landscaping lately at my new home in Rio Rico. Most of the things I’ve done have involved digging holes and moving rocks, which has become somewhat tedious, but it’s all coming along nicely. Today I was making a border of rocks along my back wall and creating a trail behind it, which involved a lot of digging and, in particular, scraping, with a spade.
Engrossed in my work, I didn’t notice for a while, but when I stopped scraping the ground I realized I was surrounded by birds. My brain did a couple of somersaults before it figured out that I’d been making the same sort of noise as ‘pishing.’
For the uninitiated, the art of pishing is a technique employed by birders to attract birds and have them reveal themselves from the dense habitats they tend to hide in. It’s like shushing someone loudly in a library: psssssshhhhhhhhh! A birder can be standing next to some apparently empty bushes or trees, and a few pishes later can be sorting through half a dozen small birds which have come out to see what the commotion is.
And that’s exactly what pishing is, imitating a commotion made by small birds when they find a predator or something else of great excitement. In Arizona at least, I relate pishing to recreating the sound of an outraged BEWICK’S WREN, which makes a grating, buzzy noise when vexed. Bewick’s Wrens are one of the first on the scene of any incident, closely followed by kinglets, titmice, hummingbirds, sparrows, warblers, tanagers and many other birds. Pishing is an incredibly effective way for birders to find out what’s around.
As I carried on working, a variety of resident birds came in close to see what this scraping noise was. I was working quite near a CACTUS WREN nest – I always am here – so that pair was going crazy, boldly hopping from branch to branch a few feet away, pishing back at me. A couple of BLACK-THROATED SPARROWS were keeping low and calling quietly, and a RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROW stayed further back still. A pair of VERDINS came in to see what the all the fuss was about, closely followed by a gnatcatcher.
I’ve had some close views of the resident BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHERS but this bird struck me as different right away, being strangely interested in my scraping and staying a few feet away in the edge of the nearest mesquite, not calling but sizing me up in great detail. Even without binoculars I was able to see the undertail pattern clearly and determine that this was my first yard record of BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER. I’m sure I wouldn’t have noticed this bird without the benefit of landscaping!