Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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.

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