Warbler Alert

Counting Songbirds in a Tribute to Spring
  |  Gorp.com

Unless I see at least 30 species of warblers in May, I feel I haven't paid fitting tribute to the spring migration. Drawn north this month as if by a magnet, these energized little bundles of yellow and green blow through the trees, singing constantly. No songbirds evince the power, beauty and mystery of migration more spectacularly than the warblers.

Tribes of them reappear as the trees leaf out, feeding on insects. Some remain to breed, others go farther north. They follow an ancient migratory urge, most coming from winter homes in Central and South America and in the West Indies.

Migrating warblers do most of their traveling at night. In the morning, they favor migratory funnels—coastal woods, river valleys and ridges—where they forage among the leaves to refuel for the next leg of their journeys. On a good day, in a few hours of birding, you can see 15 to 20 of the more than 30 species of warblers regularly found in much of the United States.

The migration of warblers through many of the northern states usually peaks during the second and third weeks of May, their numbers on a given day largely determined by the weather. Birders have all kinds of meteorological nostrums for predicting the days that will bring big flights of migrants, and for years I was among them. In May I would become preoccupied with weather reports. When all the signs suggested that a mass warbler movement was imminent, I went to bed thinking, "tomorrow's the day!"

Most often, I was disappointed. Ultimately I had to accept that there was little correlation between my migration theories and what the warblers were doing. These days, like the warblers, I follow my instincts and go birding if it feels right.

My time in the field seems to confirm that habitat destruction is reducing the songbird population. When I began birding 25 years ago, there were more than a few days in May when warblers poured through the woods. The overlapping songs of all the different species confused yet delighted me. Now such days are rare. I can still see 30 species by month's end, but few species occur in large numbers.

The more common warblers—parula, yellow-rumped and some eight other species—are easy to find, and I quickly add the widespread breeders to my list: yellow warbler, black-and-white, worm-eating, ovenbird, yellowthroat. The hooded warbler is one of the less common breeders where I live in Connecticut, but every year I meet a few. Pine warblers, prairies and Louisiana waterthrushes are reliable in their respective habitats.

The unpredictable warblers—Cape May and Tennessee—are usually scarce, but in some years, at particular locations, they can be fairly common, though they tend not to linger. Certain warblers seem to travel singly and move through quickly, providing only a window of opportunity. In my area, the northern waterthrush usually falls into this category.

Nashville, blackburnian, and Wilson's warblers are not rare, but they can be somewhat elusive. Palm warblers come early in the season, weeks before bay-breasteds and blackpolls, whose appearance indicates that the migration is winding down.

If I bird consistently, by mid-May I might already have seen 27 species without undue effort, but 30 is the magic number, and to break it I will need at least three genuine rarities. A prothonotary warbler or a Kentucky could pop up on our birding hotline, the Connecticut Rare Bird Alert (203-254-3665). I could wait until late May and maybe find a mourning warbler or a yellow-breasted chat.

Casting my fate literally to the wind, however, is risky birding business. To be assured of 30 warblers in May, I must make a pilgrimage to Connecticut's warbler mecca: River Road in Kent. This dead-end dirt road follows a peaceful stretch of southern New England's Housatonic River and connects to the Appalachian Trail. In spring, the woods and brushy clearings come alive with songbirds, including certain warbler specialties.

Along River Road, cerulean warblers, rare elsewhere in the state, are virtually guaranteed. For several years running, I've joined other birders in watching the yellow-throated warbler, very rare in Connecticut, sing from the top of a massive streamside sycamore. The golden-winged warbler, another rarity, can sometimes be found in an overgrown field, betraying itself with its buzzy song.

There's also a chance of coming upon a riotous migration party—bands of warblers passing through. When I find a warbler party in progress, I stand under their trees and watch. Fluttering through the twigs in flocks of mixed species, gleaning insects from the budding leaves, they seem indifferent to uninvited guests like me.

The diminutive warblers live a hyperactive existence on a different plane and are absorbed in their journeys. I am but a ponderous earthbound primate. They pass above me in waves, submerging me in song.


Robert Winkler is a contributing outdoors columnist for the sports section of The New York Times.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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