warblers

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.

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.

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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).