Saltmarshes are watery, grassy habitats between barrier island beaches and dunes along seacoasts and the mainland. Saltmarshes along the Atlantic Ocean from New England to Virginia are alive with a variety of creatures in summer, most of which are there to raise young.

But only great egrets and snowy egrets, which are large and white, and laughing gulls, which are abundant in saltmarshes and noisy, are obvious to casual observers in summer saltmarshes.

The presence of gulls and other kinds of birds, however, is often noted by the sounds they make, some of them under the cover of the grass. Over the years of visiting Middle Atlantic States saltmarshes, I have heard all those iconic saltmarsh sounds.

Colonies of laughing gulls nest on grassy mats on the ground of saltmarshes. Their boisterous cries sound like people laughing at some good joke.

These gray-and-white gulls, with black heads, scavenge invertebrates from marshes and catch small fish in marsh channels. But they also scavenge food littered by people on boardwalks and beaches, where gangs of these noisy gulls are most likely to be noticed.

Clapper rails are the size of small, long-legged chickens and are vertically slender to easily slip among grasses in their quest for invertebrates, without attracting predators.

Both sexes of this species are a camouflaging gray-brown and have vertically barred feathering on their flanks. Their calls are a descending “kek, kek, kek” and so on, or “cha, cha, cha, cha.”

Willets are a kind of large sandpiper that consumes invertebrates. They are not seen in saltmarshes until they fly and repeatedly call “pill-will-willet.” In flight, the white patches on their wings wave like banners, attracting attention to the birds.

Strikingly beautiful male red-winged blackbirds are visible swaying on grass tops and loudly calling “kon-ga-reeeee” to establish territories and attract mates.

Male red-wings are black with a red patch on each shoulder. Those red beacons are raised each time red-wings sing from their exposed perches. Camouflaged, but attractive, female red-wings are brown and dark-streaked.

Three species of appropriately named small birds — seaside sparrows, saltmarsh sparrows, and marsh wrens — are also heard in coastal saltmarshes in summer. The sparrows nest among the tall grasses, but the wrens raise young in stands of cattails. And both sexes of each kind of bird are similar.

Seaside sparrows are gray and dark-streaked. Males perch on tall grass or shrubs and repeatedly sing a quiet, wheezy “cut, cut-cheeeee.”

Saltmarsh sparrows are brown and streaked, with a buffy stripe over each eye. Males cling to tall grass and sing a buzzy, gasping “chup, chup-sheeeeeee.”

Marsh wrens are brown and streaked above and white underneath. This species builds bulky cradles of grass and cattail leaves on standing cattail stems above shallow water. Males’ songs are bubbly, loud, and end with a guttural rattle, repeated boisterously over and over.

These are some of the iconic sounds heard in summer saltmarshes. Readers can listen for some of these birds when visiting the Mid-Atlantic seacoast.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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