Times of Trouble

On Sunday a couple weekends ago, I was trail stewarding at the Bull Hill Loop trail head, in Putnam County. I had to manage the table by myself early in the afternoon. I usually listen and look out for birds when I trail steward all day long in order to help the time pass, especially during visitor lulls. The number of species to add on my list dwindled to zero. I heard the same birds sing over and over – Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Brown Cowbird, etc.

Not far into the woods, a few American Crows started cawing raucously. Sometimes they caw when simply talking with one another, but their tone hinted that they were mobbing something instead. I looked up in their direction. I couldn’t see them. The cawing continued. A small moment passed. Then a Red-tailed Hawk appeared into view overhead, followed by more than a half dozen crows.

To watch a mobbing is of the most exciting events in birdwatching. It happens all year round whenever passerines (perching birds a part of the Passeriformes order, which includes songbirds, woodpeckers, corvids, etc.) gang up and attempt to kick raptors out of the area. They boisterously call and even dive at the raptor. During breeding season, eggs, nestlings, and fledglings are easy pickings for carnivorous birds. It’s fun to watch a robin chase a jay; an oriole or a kingbird closely glide above a hawk or crow; and flocks of crows, jays, and grackles harass a hawk or owl. Sometimes even vultures – carrion eaters, of all things – get mobbed. I feel bad for them.

I’ve seen so many Red-tails during my 3.75-something years as a birder. They are the most commonly observed raptor in the lower Hudson. But I picked up my bins because why not? It’s always nice to view a raptor so up close.

A couple of the crows started to sound strangled with desperation. The group frantically chased after the Red-tail, which continued to glide, delicately evading every one of its pursuers. When I put my bins on the hawk, I could see that it tightly held a young crow in its talons.

I didn’t have more than two seconds. Mobbing scenes happen rapidly. Though the young crow looked like an adolescent, a couple weeks passed its fledgling stage. Small, with fully grown plumage. And it looked alive. Calm. Knowing struggling to be futile. Waiting for its family to rescue it.

The Red-tail and the crows headed towards the river, out of sight. I could still hear the frantic cawing. Seconds later, the Red-tail appeared overhead again. Four crows trailing behind, it swiftly glided to the north. I didn’t have time to even grab my bins, but its talons appeared empty – no black blob against a light undercarriage.

The desperation stopped right after the Red-tail disappeared. The cawing lingered, sparsely piercing the air. Some of the crows stayed close to the river. Others flew away, towards the woods. One crow, clearly a sentinel, perched high in a tree a hundred feet away from the trail head, across the the road. The sentinel craned its head to and fro. A long moment passed. Two crows flew over to the sentinel. They chatted a little. And then the three headed into the woods.

The crows remained quiet for much of the afternoon.

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Brinton Brook Hike, Report 6-2017

Because I now work weekends during the summer, I missed the Second Saturday group hike on the 10th. I will have to miss Second Saturday in July and August as well.

I got the chance to hike Brinton Brook by myself this morning. Black and yellow flies began zipping around my ears as soon as I got out of the car. I looked up to the overcast sky, a bright uniform gray. The air was so muggy that it perpetually felt like that second just before rain starts to fall. The robins sounded muted through the thick air.

Now that we have passed into the latter half of June (the summer doldrums for songbirds), I expected to hear a handful songs. Few songbirds sing at this time, save for the ones that have a second or third clutch and still need to establish territory. Most only raise one clutch and take care of their young ones at this time. I did, however, start my hike with a sharp eye and ear for fledglings.

Traveling up the trail to the map intersection, I heard two different chipping notes. One was familiar and the bird immediately seen soon after: Northern Cardinal. He foraged in the bushes next to the path. The other note was unfamiliar. I pished to draw out the source. On the other side of path, an immature male Indigo Bunting popped up and perched on a woody vine. He looked like Sleeping Beauty’s dress at the end of Flora and Merryweather’s fight: his plumage was a messy tye-dye of indigo and brown. For more than a minute, he chipped and chipped, turning to and fro, calling for his parents or expressing his state of alarm. He flew to another vine, continuing to chip, so I walked away.

I could still hear him when I reached the intersection. Not another bird made a peep. Pishing produced nothing. As I continued along the trail towards the field, I heard another chipping note from the myriad of black locusts. It sounded sharper and more metallic. Utilizing echolocation to find a bird more often difficult that easy. After a couple minutes, I saw bird finally move. An adult male Indigo Bunting. He moved closer to me, still chipping. Based on his and the other bunting’s behavior, I presumed he was scolding me for pestering his offspring, so I moved on quickly.

The pond was mostly shallow and covered in lily pads. A few Red-winged Blackbirds sang and called from all around. Walking alongside the pond, I heard more robins, a Red-eyed Vireo, a couple Eastern Wood-Pewees, and a Baltimore Oriole. I couldn’t find any herons, Great Blue or Green, when I scanned the other side. A lone green frog called.

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View of the pond from the eastern side. © S.G. Hansen

At the eastern end of the pond, the path narrowed because the vegetation had closed in on it. I paused a quick moment before crossing. I may not have been hiking the Hudson Highlands – where copperheads are about – but I (alone even with a cell phone) was still mindful about the possibility of a snake shooting towards me on the attack. As soon as I started walking I heard a rustle behind me. I looked back to see a black rat snake on the pond side of the path. It stared at me for a little before slinking into the water.

I had seen black rat snakes here before. The last time I hiked Brinton Brook, I saw three large ones swimming in the pond. Harmless, they are common in New York. They’re more likely to slither away from you when they’re scared rather than go on the attack.

At the blue trail’s beginning, I heard two Wood thrushes duel. The hike up to the power lines, of course, was quite dead, with exception to a small titmouse family.

The clouds were just starting to part away when I arrived the power lines. Minutes later, I saw mostly blue sky. The sun brightly shined. Now I was birding during a true summer day, hot and muggy. I observed a lot of bird activity: two Eastern Towhees, four Prairie Warblers, three Blue-winged Warblers, a couple more Baltimore Orioles, three more Indigo Buntings, two Field Sparrows, two loudly warblering House Wrens, and a Common Yellowthroat. From the woods I heard another Eastern Wood-Pewee and more cardinals. Many of these birds were singing and chattering all at once. The Prairies were flying about, and two of the Blue-winged were fighting. Numerous insects zipping around constantly threw off my focus.

I experienced my first birding sensory overload of the year. It was difficult to decide which single bird to settle on and to discern if it was a bird within a split second. But when the warblers came into view, I reserved my bins for them. I had only Prairies up to this point. It was a relief to finally see them. I also watched an Indigo Bunting sing perched atop of a nearby bush, his blue blazing in the sunlight. I also don’t often see Field Sparrows. It was wonderful to catch a sight of a pair.

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Nessus Sphinx Moth at the power lines field. © S.G. Hansen

I was relieved to re-enter the woods. Even though I now heard the construction of the golf course expansion at its loudest (I was hearing it throughout the hike since I started). The construction didn’t deter the birds from going about their business. I had walked into a miniature bubble of activity. A pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds flew about. Three voluble Hairy Woodpeckers sang, called, and darted from tree to tree. Another two male Baltimore Orioles – one adult, one immature – chattered. I disturbed a pair of Eastern Towhees into hiding. When I pished to coax the female out, the male burst forth and aggressively sang “Drink your tea!!!!”.

I continued. I heard more pewees, Wood Thrushes, titmice, and chickadees. At this point, I stopped keeping track of robins. I had seen a lot thus far – including immatures – and decided to estimate a number in the end. Shortly transitioning from the white to the yellow trail, I saw a Wood Thrush scoot along the forest floor, wary of my presence. Just ahead, in one spot, a Scarlet Tanager and Blue-headed Vireo sang. I tried getting on the vireo but failed. The tanager did fly into view, his red stunningly way more powerful than a cardinal’s. He sang even as carried an insect in his mouth.

Activity quieted down significantly as I further hiked down. Toward the trail’s end, I saw a few more robins, and heard one more pewee and the same Carolina Wren from the beginning. Before hopping back into my car, I stopped by the Weinstein pond, which was still as glass.

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I got within six feet of this tame bunny. © S.G. Hansen

My hike lasted a little less than two hours. I might have been more patient and slow-going were it not for the humidity. Summer is my least favorite season for this reason….That means it’s time to visit the beach for shorebirds! Still, I was pleased to go around Brinton Brook and barely make it in time before the summer doldrums hit. I observed 33 species. Check out the eBird checklist here!

To the Rescue…Actually, Don’t

My last post describes a somewhat appropriate situation in which one can actively attempt to help an injured bird. A couple days ago, I ran into a not-so-appropriate situation.

I work as a trail steward for the Hudson Highlands and Fahnestock State Parks, located Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. On weekends, I float between two popular trail heads, where I help hikers choose which trails to take if they are unfamiliar with the area. I had just switched when my fellow stewards told me that someone had found a hurt bird around a mile up a trail. They kept it safe until I returned, knowing I was a birder. One of them held it in his cupped hands: a Tufted Titmouse fledgling, fully feathered.

I sighed. Considering that many people assume fledglings are lost and/or helpless, I immediately thought that this misguided hiker made the common decision to remove a perfectly healthy fledgling. I then noticed the titmouse’s right leg. So badly injured at the joint, it was barely held together by a few wiry ligaments.

Two out of three of my coworkers had to switch out upon my arrival. I took the fledgling in my own hands. It rowdily buzzed and ruffled its wings. It managed to hop out. It propelled itself toward the bushes with wings alone. I recaptured it with little effort.

You might be thinking, Just put it back anyway. It’s nature. I haven’t yet had much experience to observe nature’s not-so-nice aspects, though I am immune to dead birds, especially dead fledglings (no pity for the dead). I’m still quite sensitive and sympathetic to wildlife, especially if the wildlife is a little soft ball of feathers with a torn leg and willful beady eyes. I reasoned that since the fledgling had already been down here for hours, I may as well ring up a local animal rehabilitation center. Still, in the back of my mind, I wondered if the center would really care for it. An fatally injured bird, yes, but a widespread songbird, and a young one. Do these places really help to raise young birds such as titmice?

I called the local police for a number. This number wasn’t any help at all. Not only did the person on the other end said she couldn’t do anything, but she tried finding me numbers for other places in Putnam, Dutchess, and Westchester. She managed only one in Westchester, rather far from me. When I dialed that number, an answering machine prattled. I heard the word “acupuncture.” I called again to double check I heard correctly. During those five minutes, the titmouse struggled in my balled hand, buzzing with irritation. I wished I had a small box.

My coworker who had stayed behind with me gave me her tall ceramic coffee cup. I dropped the fledgling inside. It immediately stopped fussing. It looked a little cramped, but had enough room to preen. I delayed the inevitable action by contacting several friends in my Saw Mill River Audubon circle for advice. I learned that late Saturday afternoon is a terrible time to reach anybody. I did get through to my final contact. But at this point, I knew what I had to do. I just wanted an understanding ear and found one. She heard the fledgling’s incessant buzzing for attention and food throughout the call.

“Good luck,” she said. “Let me know what happens.”

“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Since it’s almost summer there’s a lot of snake activity. Some hikers have been telling us they spotted a good number of snakes along the trail.”

After I hung up, I informed my supervisor that I had to put the fledgling back. I expressed it would have been more helpful if the hiker were more specific about where she found it. A mile up the trail was frustratingly vague. Agreeing, he recommended a particular location, and off I went.

The fledgling buzzed intermittently as I hiked. The buzzing reminded me of the call notes that titmice make when they’re communicating while trying to find food, except it was rougher sounding. Hikers passing us minded their own business even as the fledgling made noise. Perhaps no one thought my coffee cup would contain a bird, not coffee.

When I reached the spot – a flat open area laden with honey locusts and grasses – I placed the coffee cup on the ground. The fledgling wouldn’t venture out. Once I tiled to the cup, it slid onto the ground.

The young bird stayed where it was. I didn’t want any more hikers discovering and bringing it back down, so I nudged it towards the grass off the trail. It protested again by buzzing and flapping, but it did move to the edge of the grass.

I couldn’t bring myself leave right away. I felt I had to watch over it for a couple minutes. I heard two hikers come up. It turned out I had to direct them to where the trail continued. They didn’t notice the fledgling.

The little titmouse stayed put, cocking its head to and fro, occasionally buzzing. Its entire body pulsed as it breathed. From all that calling, I hoped that its parents might hear it soon. I looked at the grass and thought about the snakes lurking around. The fledgling’s leg might have been damaged beyond hope, but its wings were still quite functional and strong. I thought of the fledgling successfully escaping snakes, even for a bit. Maybe in time for the parents to find it.

Another hiker, who seemed to have been roaming around the locust grove, was walking towards me, back to the trail. We greeted each other. The fledgling buzzed. He gazed down at it with curiosity. I explained to the hiker what was happening and took the opportunity to make a PSA about leaving fledglings alone, even when they’re hurt. He listened understandingly. The fledgling hopped onto my left shoe, and then onto my right, and then onto one of hiker’s shoes.

“Oh no, please don’t do that…” I said to it. I turned to the hiker. “This is making it harder for me to leave it be,” I said with a strained chuckle.

After he left, I felt my time pressing. I nudged the fledgling towards the grass. Instead of hopping away, it perched on my fingers. It wouldn’t get off when I shook my hand. “Really?” I asked. “You’re do this now?” I shook my hand again. It jumped off. When I got it close to the grass again, I took my final looks at it and hiked down the trail.

To the Rescue

One day in April, during my first spring as a birder, as I read on my front steps enjoying the sun’s light and warmth, I heard a muted thud.

I perked up. It sounded like a bird hit a window. Weeks before, I’d read how the frequency of birds flying into windows increases during migration, and what you can do for the bird – if still alive – when you are faced with the situation at your own home. So, I imagined what I would do to care for the bird when the moment arrived. This wouldn’t be like the time I tried to “save” a Black-capped Chickadee fledgling the summer before. Granted, I was not yet a birder and didn’t even know what a chickadee was, let alone understand that I should have left it.

I designed and replayed a scenario with the least amount of incidence. Create a safe space: grab a cardboard box, small towels, and, if applicable, some feeder seeds. Approach the possibly stunned and exhausted creature gingerly. Make it so your presence suggests, I’m not a predator. Ensure its comfort as it rests. Watch it with reassurance as it flies away from your hand with ease.

Ready but nervous to get at it, I slowly walked down the steps. On the driveway sat a motionless male American Redstart. (My first redstart! It’s smaller in real life…) I crept towards him with lowered arms and outstretched hands. It looked like he was staring into space. His head was cocked to the right, his eyes unblinking. When I was less a foot away, he turned to look up at me, squeaked in surprise, clumsily fluttered into my left armpit, and soared away out of sight.

After blankly gaping after him a bit, I went back to reading.

No 5-2017 Report for Brinton Brook

Yes, I will not write up report for this month’s Brinton Brook hike because I couldn’t be there. A few days ago, I sprained my foot. In the middle of spring migration. I have to rest it until early June, when the “big silence” begins (many migrants stop singing and are nesting).

Today is also Global Big Day, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology event held on the second Saturday of May each year, the first having occurred in 2015. It’s a world-wide collaborative citizen science project that also appeals to more competitive birders and to listers.

Sprain my foot in time for these two events I’d hate to miss? Oh horror. I don’t feel that bad about it since the weather for today wants stay cold, rain the entire time, and maybe blow some wind here and there. If you’ve read my Magee Marsh post, you would know I dislike birding in this weather.

I did snag my First of Year Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Other than that, not much has been going on with feederwatching. The same birds visit every hour: cardinal, titmouse, chickadee, grackle, cowbird, whitehatch, red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, house finch, goldfinch, house wren.

I’m taking this opportunity to inform you that I keep a third list in addition to my life and years lists: birds I witness have sex. I added Common Grackle as the fourth today.

Number one is Mourning Dove. During my first spring as a birder, I was reading on the front steps when a pair of doves landed in the oak tree. One cozied up to the other. I was looking forward to them engaging romantically. But the former hopped onto the latter, madly flapped his wings for three seconds, and then hopped off. They immediately flew away afterward.

Number two is House Sparrow. I saw them during my Sarah Lawrence graduation ceremony. He was on her for more than a minute. Something wrong?

Number three is Scarlet Tanager. I was on an early morning Saw Mill River Audubon trip at Doodletown. As with the doves, the sex lasted only a few seconds. Blazing red quivered over soft yellow. Everyone saw it happen.

I not only got to see grackle sex but also the courtship. The pair had perched on top of the vegetable patch fence, near the back of the garden. She was hunched down, tail up. She looked noticeably less glossier than her mate, whose iridescence shined even under overcast light. He fanned his tail, spread his wings, and walked forward and backyard, his beak opening and closing (I wished I could hear him make his mating calls). He mounted her for two seconds, hopped down to resume courtship, mounted her a second time, and hopped down once again to dance even more. His mate got tired of him. She stood upright, faced him, yelled at him as he continued dancing, and flew away. He lingered on the fence for a couple minutes. And then flew over to the deck for sunflower seeds.

Do you have any unique/different bird lists? Let me know in the comments!

My First Trip to Magee Marsh

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The entrance to the boardwalk trail at Magee Marsh on Friday. We had to be careful not to slip on the boards. © S.G. Hansen

When migrating warblers reach Lake Eerie, they see a rather large body of water, decide not to cross, and use Magee Marsh as a rest stop. They have traveled thousands of miles and are exhausted. Early next morning, they eat and sing upon rising, and then they fly over Eerie to Canada, where they will reach their breeding grounds.

In my previous post in which I detailed my process for studying warbler songs, I stated an upcoming Saw Mill River Audubon trip to Magee Marsh. The entire trip lasted May 1-9. I opted for the first half – from the 1st to the 5h (the 9th was my birthday and I didn’t want to spend 9 hours traveling). This trip seemed like a fantastic chance to fulfill my New Year’s resolution of observing more warblers – both the numbers and species. I hoped for at least fifteen species a day and a few lifers (keep in mind, Sibley’s fold-out guide covers 38 warblers). How about a Prothonotary or Kirtland’s?! I was thrilled at the idea of a colorful collage of warblers at eye and ground level instead of craning my head up to the canopy the entire time and suffering “warbler neck.” I felt totally confident about identifying warblers by sight. However, at the beginning, I felt anxious that the songs I studied would fly out the window as soon as I got there. Bird songs vary in the field…application takes practice.

Now that the trip has passed…. Suffice to say, I didn’t see Magee Marsh at its fullest potential. When you’re repeatedly told that warblers are trickling from the trees at every angle, and you don’t feel agoraphobic in spite of the throng of like-minded birders, you go in expecting a certain level of birdiness.

Ever since I caught birding fever, I quickly learned that expectation can be met with disappointment. The birds are unpredictable. What you get is what you get. Alternatively, the outcome might be better than what you originally sought.

Now when it comes to weather, you pray pray pray. During the weeks leading up to the trip, leaders Anne Swaim and Charlie Roberto closely followed the forecast. Initially, the weather was ideal: sunny and warm. But as time progressed, the predictions changed. The forecast eventually stuck with cold, wet, and windy. A storm was supposed to occur on Thursday, when we scheduled a ferry to Pelee Island.

We only had two “good” days out of five: Monday afternoon (my arrival) and most of Wednesday, which, though a tad cold for early May, were sunny. The other days were not great. Songbirds hate high winds, thus so do I. It was windy and overcast. Warblers don’t feel so inclined reveal themselves if there is no sun, which draws out insects. Warblers pretend they don’t exist when the wind feels like it can tear off a car door.

Though the rain didn’t start until the afternoon, our Thursday ferry to Pelee Island was cancelled. We still made a trek to the boardwalk trail spotted decent birds. Friday was the worst. It rained all day long. The wind by Lake Eerie’s shore felt and sounded like hurricane-level. The joke “Hold onto your hats!” was told one too many times.

Our hotels were half an hour away from the Magee Marsh, so we drove back and forth on Route 2 every day. We passed the same landmarks and fields and ponds multiple times. On Thursday and Friday, we could truly see how much rain was falling. The rivers and ponds rose drastically. Egrets huddled in the vegetation to escape the downpour and the wind. Another day or two of this storm and Route 2 could have flooded. Large puddles coated the farm fields. One side road was closed to due to flooding.  On Thursday late afternoon, we tried a brief visit to Metzger Marsh but left immediately. Lake waves were washing over the part of the parking lot. On our way out, a lower stretch of the driveway was flooded by several inches. It wasn’t flooded when we drove in.

Charlie and Anne mostly drove us to various hotpots around Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Waterfowl, shorebirds, and wader birds would the warbler void. As we crept by on the narrow roads, we scanned from our vehicles through open windows. The wind blustered in. The rain pelted us, sharp as needles. When we stopped every fifty feet, not everyone ventured outside. Most of us expected actual May weather and were under dressed, even with rain pants. (I didn’t have rain paints – extra misery points for me.) I mostly stayed inside too. I made up my mind to go out unless Anne or Charlie put their scopes on something different or exciting. I couldn’t handle this read-a-book-by-the-fireplace weather any longer. The rain kept falling. Eventually, we resorted to strictly observing from within our vehicles, windows closed.

No matter the weather, actually, there were a lot of highlights as we went around Ottawa and visited Metzger during the week. I’m thankful that waterfowl, shorebirds, and wader birds don’t mind cold and wet weather. I heard Trumpeter Swans for the first time. I saw more Blue-winged Teal than I have had at Montezuma NWR. I finally had an opportunity to see Dunlin in their breeding plumage, with rusty backs and patch black bellies. I had never seen so many Great and Lesser Yellowlegs at once. We observed more than thirty Sandhill Cranes throughout our five days, flying, calling, foraging, and walking. Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons were everywhere, especially along Route 2.

We also saw an American Pipit in breeding plumage (not something you’d get in Westchester County), a great number of Bald Eagles, a flock of 40 Wood Ducks, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a handful of Swainson’s Thrushes and Horned Larks, a large flock of various swallows flycatching all around us as we walked the beach, a Lark Sparrow and several Red-headed Woodpeckers at Oak Openings Preserve, and an Eastern Whip-poor-will sleeping mere feet away from the Magee Marsh boardwalk (a surprise lifer!).

In spite these highlights, I can’t help but feel more disappointed than content. I went on this trip solely for warblers. I spent a lot of money on it. Did I set myself up for disappointment in spite of my philosophy? On this scale, it hurts. It’s hard to escape bitterness.

I couldn’t bring myself look at the eBird lists from the 6th to the 9th. I finally asked someone who signed up for entire trip how things went. Though the weather was sunnier, the wind didn’t calm down. No improvements in warbler diversity except for a sighting of a Prothonotary. He and the others also saw Marbled Godwit, Least Bittern, and Soras. Alas, all potential lifers. Birding is fun yet so cruel.

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We spent a lovely afternoon at Oak Openings Preserve on Wednesday. Charlie found a ring-necked snake. I got to hold it! When it doubt, snakes. © Philip Heidelberger

I personally observed 17 warbler species over the course of the five days: Northern Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Canada Warbler.

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We’re trying to get on a not-so-cooperative Canada Warbler. © Charlie Roberto

Many were First of Year, mostly observed on the boardwalk and the Ottawa NWR Crane Creek Trail. The Blue-winged and the Prairie were heard-only’s. I saw so many Yellow-rumped and Palm that I was done with them by the end of the trip (as said before, I wanted diversity). Expressing this sentiment aloud brought out teasing from Charlie. As beautiful as these warblers are…well, I wasn’t the only frustrated person. I also heard and saw many Yellows. I nearly confused one’s song for that of a Chestnut-sided Warbler. In fact, I was surprised to not have observed Chestnut-sided at all! I missed my favorite warbler.

One of my favorite of the trip is the Orange-crowned. The only other time I got one was more than a year and a half ago at Cape May. Although I wasn’t confident I would be able to ID it on my own, I still counted it as a lifer. It’s plumage is a subtle olive-gray. Rather drab like the Warblering Vireo. Speed forward through time, I saw up to four during this trip. These little guys were literally over my head (kind of what I generally expected for every other warbler during the trip). I had such excellent looks that I was able to notice the diagnostic flank stripes and eye line. My ID skills have definitely improved since Cape May. Additional good looks include Canada, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Northern Parula.

I barely missed the two Blackburnians a couple others saw Monday afternoon, one of the better days. It would have been a year bird, but I’m glad to have missed it over my first-ever Nashville Warbler. I got only a glimpse of it. The Nashville didn’t perch out in the open long, though my first look was a good enough: soft blue-gray head, warm yellow throat and breast, a fine olive back, and a bright white eye ring. I had admired the bird from afar in the Warbler Guide’s photos. Seeing the Nashville personally proved again that the live bird in front of you is quite astounding. I thought I would have trouble ID’ing by sight like – and might even confuse it with – the Connecticut and Tennessee, which are the more subtle-colored warblers. Though as soon as I put my binoculars on it, “Nashville” clicked right away. I gladly present the fact that I was the only person in group to have observed it that day.

One other warbler counted as a lifer: the Cape May. I had considered it a “mythical bird” (others used to be the Barred Owl, Harlequin Duck, and Red-breasted Nuthatch). You haven’t seen it yet other people have. It’s the subject of many photos and videos. You can’t believe such a bird exists. Too much of a striking creature, simple in its own life yet profound in yours. How can this plumage pattern have formed, and those particular colors? When will you chance come?

I was lucky saw two individual Cape Mays two days in a row. The first one – someone notified me as we slowly strolled on the boardwalk and I practically ran over to the spot. I had a little trouble getting on it since flitted deep in a shrub some yards away from the boardwalk. As soon as I found, I locked my eyes on it until it went out of sight a couple minutes later. This one’s plumage was more intense than what I’d seen in my field guides’ illustrations. Strong yellow, deep orange cheek patches, and dense black breast streaks. It foraged near the front of the shrub, obligingly staying put in one spot for more than two seconds, clinging to the flimsy ends of branches upside down, pecking the underside of leaves for insects.

The next day, we had just completed the boardwalk and lingered outside the entrance. A small bird swiftly fluttering in a short tree caught my eye. At first look I noticed streaks on a yellow breast – yellow warbler – but the streaks were too dark and heavy. “Cape May Warbler!” A crowd drew around.

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Photographer eyes on the Cape May Warbler. © Charlie Roberto

This Cape May was lighter than the other, having finer streaks, cheek patches colored a more delicate orange. It foraged so thoroughly and out in the sunny open that everyone in our group got their bins on it. No one should miss this warbler or dare to give up on it when it’s so cooperative.

Of course, now I must return to Magee Marsh one future May. I have a feeling that my yearning for more warblers will never subside even after then.

Magee Marsh also seems like an extraordinary duck habitat. Thank goodness I can turn to ducks for their reliability.

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Yes, I’m smiling. It wasn’t so windy when this photo was taken. With my friend Kathleen, a luckier trip go-er who went with the flow and didn’t mind the lack of warblers. © S.G. Hansen

On Studying Warbler Songs

In January, I created a list of New Year’s resolutions, with learning and memorizing warbler songs as one resolution. Days later I signed up for an upcoming trip to Magee Marsh – located in Oak Harbor, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Eerie – during the first week of May with Saw Mill River Audubon. This would be my first trip to Magee Marsh. I couldn’t have hoped for a better reinforcement and place to fulfill another resolution to see more warblers.

I started studying in early April.  To begin, I looked up the eBird hotspot for the boardwalk and made my way to the bar charts to check which warblers are most likely to be observed there. I added a few more species because they are also common in Westchester. I ended up with thirty-six songs to study and review. Throughout these past few weeks, I’ve been taking two or three days of each week to concentrate on small batches of 3-5 warblers. I’m not quite finished. Just a couple days to go. Here is my progress:

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As you can see, the Kirtland’s Warbler is listed…just in case.

 

I color-coded the days and numbered the warblers to help myself remember which species I studied when and at what point. (The colors are brought to you by my grapheme-color synesthesia.) Italics symbolize priority. These are the species I think I should attune my ears most to at Magee Marsh. About half of each batch includes species’ songs I don’t know – Blackburnian, Prothonotary – and the other half includes species with which I’m already familiar (Yellow, Prairie). This helps my brain avoid the feeling of being stuffed with cotton and have an easier time taking in new information.

I randomly select the species (“I’ll study this one today” – is pretty much how it goes). I have several resources on hand: Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, National Audubon’s online guide, and various YouTube channels. I mostly skip plumage since I’m already familiar with ID’ing a lot of warblers based on sight. An optional first step. I did make a few exceptions for the more subtle species, such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Connecticut. I also find the captions under the Additional Photos sections helpful in regards to diagnostic marks and behavior. We are getting at the point in which foliage helps warblers hide from the world.

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Nashville Warbler page in Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide. © Stephenson and Whittle

Next, I turn to the sonograms page. I keep the book beside my laptop.

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American Redstart sonograms in The Warbler Guide. Not all of the warblers have seven different types of songs, thank goodness. © Stephenson and Whittle

I bring up the Lab of Ornithology’s warbler page via Browse Bird Profiles, play the audio clip, and read the sonogram as I listen. (You will find that there are vireos mixed in. They can be confused with warblers. Stephenson and Whittle handily acknowledge this in their guide.)

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A screenshot of the warbler group main page on allaboutbirds.org. © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Then I do the same with the Audubon guide. Unlike Cornell, Audubon provides multiple songs per species, thus also providing the various song types. Audubon’s guide sounds like a better companion to The Warbler Guide‘s sonograms, but I like referring to Cornell because it can have song types that Audubon doesn’t provide. Even if the clip were of the same song type, an individual bird usually sounds faintly different than another individual.

I try utilizing the rote memory method.I would listen to each clip several times, either looking at or not looking at the sonograms. Sometimes, if the variations are so different, I play two clips simultaneously so that it sounds like two birds dueling over territory boundaries.

(I stated in my resolutions post that I “must take advantage of…the Macaulay Library.” I simply forgot about that at the time I started studying. But I think using All About Bird’s and the Audubon online guide are enough for now, having just a few audio clips of the most basic types – and little variation – at hand.)

After that, I head over to YouTube to watch videos of the warblers singing (largely Lang Elliot, Wild Bird Video Productions, and Larry Bond in that order). By combining sight and hearing, the videos further help me associate the song with that particular species.

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Lastly, I add on to the Review list I created. Asterisks replace italics to indicate priority birds.

warblerlist2

I don’t review the songs in-between study days. I tried it. It mostly overwhelmed me and I still couldn’t play many of the songs in my head from memory afterward. The ones that did stick easily were Chestnut-sided and Mourning. I’m getting there with Hooded, Tennessee, and the waterthrushes. But, for most of them, if I do play an audio clip, the best I get to is “Yes, this is familiar.” (I know what the best method of learning bird songs is for me: to venture out in the field with an experienced listener, processing one or two songs at a time.)

Once I complete all thirty-six species, I have in mind to review any two songs at the most per day. Rote memory, rote memory, rote memory. Yes, I’m aware I’m running of out time. The Magee Marsh trip is less than a week away. But there are warblers elsewhere and farther in the future (as bleak the future seems).