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Birder's Journal: Chasing Down Warblers

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
May 21, 2002
 
Every spring, the bird population in North America grows by two to five
billion with the arrival of neotropical migrants—birds that winter
in southern Mexico, Central America, northern South America, and the
West Indies. In parts of the United States and Canada, neotropical
migrants constitute more than 50 percent of nesting species.

Neotrops, as they are sometimes called, enhance the newly green spring landscape with their often-brilliant colors and beautiful songs. They include familiar species like the shade-tree-loving Baltimore oriole, striking forest denizens like the scarlet tanager, aerialists like the barn swallow, flycatchers like the eastern kingbird, and virtuoso singers like the wood thrush.



The wood warblers—members of the tribe Parulini—form a very large group of neotrops. Of the 115 wood-warbler species in this strictly New World tribe, about 60 range north of Mexico. In my neck of the woods in Connecticut, unless I see at least 30 of them in May, when their numbers peak, I feel I haven't paid fitting tribute to the spring migration.

Migrating Warblers

Drawn north this month as if by a magnet, these energized little bundles of yellow and green blow through the trees, singing constantly. No songbirds evince the power, beauty, and mystery of migration more spectacularly than the warblers. Following an ancient migratory urge, they reappear as the trees leaf out, feeding on insects. Some remain to breed; others go farther north.

Migrating warblers do most of their traveling at night. In the morning, they seem to favor migratory funnels—coastal woods, river valleys, and ridges—where they forage among the leaves to refuel for the next leg of their journey. On a good day, a birder can see 15 to 20 of the more than 30 species of warblers regularly found in eastern North America. Warblers also occur in the West, but the diversity of species that breed north of Mexico is richer in the East.

The migration of warblers through many of the northern states usually peaks during the second and third weeks of May. Their numbers on a given day are largely determined by the weather. Birders have all kinds of meteorological nostrums for predicting the days that will bring big flights of migrants, and for years I was among them. In May, I would become preoccupied with weather reports. When all the signs suggested that a mass warbler movement was imminent, I went to bed thinking, tomorrow is the day!

Most often, I was disappointed. Ultimately, I had to accept the idea that there was little correlation between my migration theories and what the warblers were doing. These days, like the warblers, I follow my instincts: I go birding if it feels right.

My time in the field seems to confirm that habitat destruction in breeding, wintering, and migration-stopover areas is reducing the Eastern songbird population. When I began birding 25 years ago, there were more than a few days in May when warblers poured through the woods. The overlapping songs of all the different species confused yet delighted me. Now such days are rare. I can still see 30 species by month's end, but few species occur in large numbers.

The more common warblers—parula, yellow-rumped, and some eight other species—are easy to find, and I quickly add them to my list. Next, I check off the widespread nesting species: yellow warbler, black-and-white, worm-eating, ovenbird, and yellowthroat. The hooded warbler is one of the less common nesters in southern New England, but every year I meet a few. Pine warblers, prairies, and Louisiana waterthrushes are fairly easy to find in their respective habitats.

The unpredictable warblers—Cape May and Tennessee—are usually scarce, but in some years, at particular locations, they can be fairly common, though they tend not to linger. Certain warblers seem to travel singly and move through quickly, providing only a small window of opportunity for birders to see them. In Connecticut, where I do most of my birding, the northern waterthrush usually falls into this category.

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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