Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, September 29, 2013

In Praise of Carolina Wrens

Dawn, Cape May. As the first light appears at Higbee Beach, I am walking quickly up the road to where I know others will be awaiting the morning flight, that strange phenomenon when southbound birds find themselves over Delaware Bay at dawn and so turn and head north to land, in this case Higbee.

As I walk along I hear the pleasant song of the Carolina wren. In fact, I hear several.
Carolina wren, Cape May, NJ  (Margo D. Beller)

In fact, during the full day of birding my husband and I had in Cape May a couple of weeks ago, the bird we heard the most was the Carolina wren. Every single place we stopped had at least one singing, and the songs were usually different. These wrens are loud for such little birds, and after minutes of singing one song, they switch to another.

9 a.m., Morris Plains. I am walking along a street in my NJ town to the convenience store where I buy the morning paper. It is a cool morning, color beginning to appear in the maples, the first sign that summer is over and autumn is here. As I walk I listen for what birds might be around. I hear chips and cheeps and some of the familiar contact calls of the titmice and white-breasted nuthatches but the only song I hear is the Carolina wren's.

When people ask me what is my favorite bird, I always say the black-capped chickadee and the cardinal are tied for first, with the Carolina wren a close second.

The chickadee likes to poke around, isn't put off by people and has an appealing "Hey, sweetie" song. It is rambunctious and flies in small flocks, or in ones and twos. The cardinal, by contrast, is a much bigger bird, the male a bright red, the female brown with red in the crest, bill and tail. Once the young are gone you usually see pairs. They call to each other. They mate for life and in spring the male will feed the female a seed and it looks like they are kissing.

But the Carolina wren is a close second because no matter what season, it will sing. Unlike its smaller cousin the house wren, it does not leave when summer ends. Like a lot of birds formerly considered "southern" - the mockingbird, cardinal and redbellied woodpecker immediately come to mind - the Carolina wren is now a fixture of New Jersey, even northern New Jersey where I live. In fact, one year, in the west-central part of rural New Hampshire where my brother-in-law lives with his family, I found a Carolina wren investigating the overhang of his roof, perhaps looking for bugs or a possible nest site. These birds will nest just about anywhere.
Carolina wren at my feeder. (Margo D. Beller)
Other birds sing in the spring when they are asserting themselves, trying to draw a mate and setting up territories. But once nesting starts, the birds go silent and then it is soon autumn and most of them fly south for the winter. The Carolina wren also goes silent at nesting time, but once the young are out the singing resumes, and I've heard these little brown birds with the yellowish breast in the middle of winter.

As long as there aren't too many freezing days or too much snow, or as long as I provide seed and suet in my feeders, this bird will survive to breed another day. I don't see them as often as I hear them, but it is always a treat when I do and I am always honored when they come to the feeders.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Legend of the Fall

It was with great shock and no small sense of accomplishment that I realized recently that I have managed to see or hear every eastern warbler except one.

I have seen the relatively common ones - black-throated green, black and white, myrtle - and the ones I see less often such as the magnolia, Blackburnian and cerulean. I've even had the really hard ones - the usually secretive mourning warbler that popped up on a fence to sing to its mate at Great Swamp, and a bright Wilson's warbler that suddenly flew in to forage over my head in Central Park. I've seen the worm-eating warbler and heard the song of the reclusive Kentucky warbler.
Black-throated green warbler (Margo D. Beller)
Most of these I saw or heard in the spring, when the trees were bare, the birds were brightly colored and they were singing to establish a territory, either for that day en route to someplace farther north or for the rest of the breeding season.

Looking for warblers during the southbound migration is much more difficult. The birds don't sing and the males become duller in color, more like the females. There are juveniles, too, and these may look even more different. And there are many, many leaves on the trees. If I see something move, it is as likely to be a falling leaf (or a butterfly) as a bird.

This is what has made it very difficult to find that final warbler, the Connnecticut.

It is large for a warbler, and has a nice big eye ring that stands out on a dark head. But it likes to skulk around in the underbrush. It is one of those birds - the rufous hummingbird is another - that often take a more easterly route south in the fall. So while there might be one report of a Connecticut warbler in New Jersey, where I live, in the spring, there are likely to be a lot more reports during the southbound migration.

The Connecticut is the only reason you will see me looking for warblers at this time of year, when the trees are leafed out and the dull birds are silent. At this time of year you are more likely to see me at a hawk watch - Hawk Mountain, Scott's Mountain, Cape May - looking into the sky for osprey, eagle or hawks.

Crowd at Hawk Mountain hawkwatch, September 2012 (Margo D. Beller)

You might even see me at the shore or a sod farm, looking for plovers, sandpipers and other unexpected migrants. At least on a sod field you can see the birds, and the ones at the shore are usually not moving around too much.

Shorebirds, Brigantine National Wildlife Sanctuary, August 2013 (Margo D. Beller)
The other day proved my point. Plus, just to make a hard job harder, I had been to the eye doctor that morning and had drops put in to dilate my pupils. Everything I saw in a sunny meadow had a corona of fuzziness, and everything I saw in the shady woods lacked detail and definition. I could still use my ears but I had to depend on MH for a description and my years of bird knowledge to figure out an identification based on size, shape and habit.

It wasn't easy.

We went to a park where a birder had reported seeing a Connecticut, and was even nice enough to give details as to where. We went there even tho' the report was two days old and the wind had come out of the north the previous night and the birds were pushing south. We went anyway because it was a sunny Saturday and, as usual, after a week of working in the house I needed to get out.

We got to the directed spot. We stood and listened. Silence. We walked up the stairs of a nearby bird blind and looked down for something skulking in the brush. Nothing.

I, a blind birder, was in a bird blind. Perfect. We did not find the Connecticut warbler that day although we saw a female black-throated blue and several black and whites.

There will be other reports of Connecticut warblers in the next few weeks, I am sure, and the experienced birders who seem to find everything at the drop of a hat no matter what the time of day or the season will see their fifth or 50th such bird. I may try once again or I may wait until next year.