Birder's Journal: Chasing Down Warblers

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Nashville, Blackburnian, and Wilson's warblers are not rare but can be somewhat elusive. Palm warblers come early in the season, weeks before bay-breasteds and blackpolls, whose appearance indicates that the migration is winding down.

Hitting the Magic 30

If I bird consistently, I'm likely to see 27 species by mid-May without much effort. But 30 is the magic number, and to reach it I will need to spot at least three genuine rarities. The Connecticut Rare Bird Alert, a recorded telephone announcement, sometimes brings news of a prothonotary warbler or a Kentucky in the vicinity. I could get lucky in late May and come across a mourning warbler or a yellow-breasted chat.

Casting my fate literally to the wind, however, is risky birding business. To be assured of 30 warblers in May, I must make a pilgrimage to Connecticut's warbler mecca: River Road in Kent.

This dead-end dirt road follows a peaceful stretch of the Housatonic River and connects to the Appalachian Trail. There are more famous warbler hotspots—Cape May, New Jersey; Point Pelee, Ontario; Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts; New York's Central Park; and, earlier in the season, High Island on the Texas coast. But River Road will do. It's close, it's fairly wild, it's very beautiful, and it should put me over the top. In spring, its woods and brushy clearings come alive with songbirds, including certain warbler specialties.

Along River Road, seeing or hearing a cerulean warbler, a rare bird elsewhere in the state, is virtually guaranteed. For several years running, I joined other birders in watching the very rare yellow-throated warbler, a species that normally ranges no farther north than Pennsylvania, sing from the top of a massive streamside sycamore. The golden-winged warbler, yet another rarity, can sometimes be found in overgrown fields along the trail, betraying itself with its buzzy song.

There's also a chance of coming upon a riotous migration party—bands of warblers passing through. When I find a warbler party in progress, I stand under their trees and watch. Fluttering through the twigs in flocks of mixed species, gleaning insects from the budding leaves, they seem indifferent to uninvited guests like me.

The diminutive warblers live a hyperactive existence on a different plane. They are absorbed in their journeys; I am but a ponderous earthbound primate. They pass above me in waves, submerging me in song.

Robert Winkler, a nature writer, is working on a book about his adventures with birds in the "suburban wilderness" of southern New England. Visit him at pages.cthome.net/rwinkler.

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