Posted on Monday 14 May 2007

By Linda Kedenburg*

The earliest migrants have arrived and set up territories: Red-winged Blackbirds are calling from the marshes, Robins are patrolling our lawns, Phoebes are darting out from perches to snag insects in mid-air. Those who have seen them excitedly share observations of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drilling rows of holes in tree trunks and Woodcocks engaged in aerial acrobatic courtship displays. Swallows are swooping over marsh and fields in pursuit of winged insect prey.
Ospreys and Egrets are greeted even by the non-birding public, and Piping Plovers stir their own kind of excitement.

Suddenly, in the midst of all this, a streak of yellow flashes across the forest floor. Heads turn. Binoculars snap to attention. Was it? Yes, it was! A Palm Warbler! It raises and lowers its tail. Its golden yellow belly and chestnut cap are duly noted and admired. This species is one of the first to arrive**, having wintered further north than many other warblers. i.e. Florida and the northern Caribbean islands. Usually seen in small flocks accompanied by another northern wintering bird, the Pine Warbler (also has a golden yellow belly plus two white wing bars). These species herald the beginning of Warbler Season.

While crocuses, tulips and daffodils cheer us all, the hearts of birders beat faster and a rush of adrenaline accompanies the beginning of spring warbler migration. These tiny birds, no more than a few ounces in weight, live on the cusp of survival. Migrating by night, they have left their wintering grounds in the southern Gulf States, Caribbean islands or Central or South America to travel north to the breeding grounds. Some will remain to breed in our area. Most, after a brief stop-over, will face a northward trek to New England or perhaps the coniferous forests of northern Canada. Their journey, always perilous, has become even more daunting by loss of habitat on the wintering, refueling and breeding grounds. Myriad effects of global warming also threaten them. Anyone who has been birding for the last twenty years or so will lament the noticeable decline of the warblers. This has made their presence even more precious.

Often referred to as the gems of the forest, warblers in breeding plumage are both strikingly patterned and beautiful to behold. However, they are not always easy to behold. Tiny packets of energy with needle-like bills, they forage constantly. Flitting through the understory or high in the canopy, they are on a frenetic search for insects. Finding, focusing and following them with binoculars can be exceedingly difficult. Their brilliantly colored plumage can dull against cloudy skies or forest shadows and blend with new spring foliage. Learning their distinctive calls helps to distinguish species. The “weeteo” of a Hooded Warbler is very different from the “whichety whichety” of a Common Yellowthroat. Beginners, don’t be overwhelmed. This is a learning opportunity. Actually watching a vibrating little throat giving forth its own song, identifying the bird, and listening again to the song, will help to fix both in your memory. It takes time and patience, and some help from tapes, CD’s, field guides and other birders, to build a knowledge base of warblers. We all need a little (or a lot of) review each spring.

OK The winds have been from the south, the day is sunny, the trees are in minimum leaf and maximum flower and inch worms are dripping from oak catkins. A perfect warbler day.
Before going out on your first warbler walk, familiarize yourself with the more common warblers in your area. For Long Island, these would include the Black and White Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart and Ovenbird. You will hopefully see and hear many others as well . Keep a list and look them up in the field and later at home.

It will greatly add to your enjoyment if you add Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Red-eyed Vireo to your pre-trip list. Although not warblers, these fellow travelers migrate at the same time as warblers. They are larger, slower, sing repeatedly and are easier to spot. Thrushes, such as the Wood Thrush, are ethereal songsters and tend to forage on the ground, giving much-needed relief to neck muscles and eyes trained on tree-tops.

Most importantly, fear not. There will be no pop quizzes at the end of the walk. I tend to think of birding as akin to skiing. It is exciting at whichever level your ability may be. Remember most of all to admire, to wonder and, by all means, to enjoy.

* Linda Kedenburg, the author, is an avid birder who lives on the North Fork of Long Island. She also has a home in southern Vermont and has fond memories of skiing in the Mad River Valley in years past. She graciously gave permission to the Mad Birders to use her article, originally written for the North Fork Audubon Society.

** The earliest warblers for the Mad River Valley are usually the Yellow-Rumped Warbler, the Black-and-White Warbler and the Black-Throated Green Warbler.

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