If you are reading this blog and it is still light out, then I implore ye to stop and get thee to the wood. In short, the warblers are moving through and theirs is not a show to be missed. You can come back and read this later. If thee is in a darkened lair and the sun has already set beyond yonder crested hill, then make plans to get thee into the wood upon the ‘morrow.
If ye are a Quaker, please forgive me for speaking in such simple tongue, but I do often get into Quaker mode around this time of year. I guess it’s because the abundance of bird life gets me to thinking of John James Audubon -the dean of American birders. The French speaking Audubon first learned his English from the Quakers of Pennsylvania and he spoke and wrote in their manner throughout the rest of his storied life. And, if there is any time to wax poetic about birds in Audubonesque style, it is noweth.
Early to mid-May is the time when a majority of the warblers pass through our neck of the wood (and the entire stretch of northern wood). There are dozens of species of these so-called “butterfly birds” and their migration is nothing short of a feathered Tsunami (albeit a gentle one). All of them are in full color as well and each species displays a clear set of field marks. Don’t expect the same success when they pass back through in the fall, however. Many of the bird guides have a section dedicated to “Confusing Fall Warblers” and that about sums up the art of autumn warbling. No, now is the time to strike the warbling iron when their color palette is hot.
Nearly all of these tiny migrants are working their way back from the tropics and will eventually end up in the northern forests of Northern Michigan and into Canada. Their time here is short and their placement usually high. You’ll find them probing through the newly erupted tree leaf & flower buds seeking insects – they need these high protein snacks to keep up their energy reserves. You, therefore, will need to be prepared to look up for long periods of time. Your neck will crackle with pain, but ye needeth some pain in life for it too be considered good (although, you can learn some of the songs and lessen to need to look up for identification).
On a given day you’ll have the opportunity to see 10-20 species, which means that the neck pain thing will be easy to ignore. I’ve been to the wood recently and had the opportunity to see a bunch of these little dynamos. I’ve only a few to show you, but that is because “seeing” warblers is not necessarily equivalent to “getting good pictures of them.” That is my excuse anyway.
One of the nicer finds was a small group of Palm Warblers (see above and beginning photo). These chestnut-capped birds, in spite of their name, don’t necessarily spend an inordinate amount of time around palm trees. They winter along the gulf coast and the Caribbean, to be sure, but they actually nest further north than most warblers. Their breeding range extends well up into the high taiga forests and boggy areas near the Arctic Circle. They are ground nesters and they also spend quite a bit of time on the ground foraging as well. Their nervous habit of tail wagging will give them away from a distance (you could say that it is not difficult to read a Palm Warbler!).
I’ve introduced the Yellow-rumped Warbler to you many times in the past (see below). This species tends to over-winter here as drab-colored berry eaters. Spring brings about a magical transformation of these butter-butts. Their contrasting yellow highlights and blue-gray features are now a sight to behold. Needless to say, their name is very diagnostic (although I have just needlessly said it). Most the birds seen now are actual migrants passing through from the southern U.S. and Mexico. This season, in particular, happens to be a benchmark year for these birds and they are literally everywhere.
Yellow Warblers are also common in these parts – both as migrants and summer residents (see below). They are one of the few warblers that nest in the willow thickets of S.E. Michigan. They are not permanent residents, however. They spend most of their year in the tropics of Central America and Columbia. Like most warblers, Yellows are actually tropical birds that happen to pay us a visit each year. Better thought of as flying dandelions, these birds are unmistakable in color and distinctive in call. Their whispy “Sweet sweet sweet oh so Sweet” call is a regular part of our summer landscape.
Last, but not least, is the secretive Black & White Warbler (see below). Well named, their bold pattern consists of alternating stripes of black on white (or is it white on black?). These warblers seek their insect food amongst the nooks and crannies offered by tree and vine bark. They sneak about in close proximity to the trunk in the manner of a nuthatch or a brown creeper. Another deep tropical bird from southern Mexico through to Venezuela, they look very much at home in the thick viney tangles of southern Michigan.
I will confess to a bit of confusion about this last bird. Both of the pictures I took of the Black & White Warbler were in color but the bird turned out to be black & white in both! I converted one of the shots (see below) into a straight black & white picture and, for some reason, the bird looks more comfortable in it’s surroundings. I invite you to taketh your color pictures of these birds and see if yours too come out in strict Quaker black & white.