Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Waves of Warblers Make May Birding Magical
May 16, 2009
By Steve Grinley

     Last Saturday was one of those magical days of birding in Eastern Massachusetts. A “fallout” of migrants, mostly warblers, filled trees and shrubs all along the coast. I was back where it all began for me – Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. It was a May morning such as this that got me hooked on birds so many years ago. Since then, I can remember only a handful of these amazing days when warblers are everywhere you look, and you can watch one tree or shrub and watch the birds move through your field of view. Though the morning was cloudy, the sun peaked out in the afternoon adding to the colorful experience.

     The majority of birds were yellow-rumped warblers, and they sported their bright spring plumage of black, gray and yellow. There was a good representation of many other warbler species including yellow, back-throated blue, black-throated green, magnolia, blue-winged, chestnut-sided, pine, palm, and bay-breasted warblers. American redstarts and common yellowthroats were also part of the parade.

     We had great looks at several ovenbirds, also a warbler, which usually spends its time on the ground and nests in the deep woods. Its round nest with a side entrance is where it got its name. Often we only hear the loud song “teacher, teacher, teacher” while the bird remains secluded. But this day, they sat on branches in full view as they sang their song.

     The other highlights were Canada and Cape May warblers near the Dell. These less common warblers put on quite a show for all the birders who gathered to see them. In fact, while trying to find out what else was in the tree with the Cape May warbler, it kept entering my binocular view as if to coax me into looking only at it. The Canada warbler clung to a tree trunk right in front of us and provided a great photo opportunity.

     The warblers were moving amidst an array of other colorful birds. The brilliant red and black of scarlet tanagers and cardinals, the deep blue indigo buntings, the bright orange and black of Baltimore orioles, and the crimson breasts of the rose-breasted grosbeaks, all painted a fitting background for the day. Meanwhile the melodious song of the wood thrushes filled the air throughout the day. Red-bellied woodpeckers, least flycatchers, blue-headed, red-eyed and warbling vireos, house wrens, and blue-gray gnatcatchers added to the foray.

     The day was topped off with views of a screech owl catching some late day sun in the hole of a tree. It retreated into the hole when it was discovered by scolding chickadees and a nuthatch. The day ended with a great horned owl sitting low in a hemlock after having been pursued by crows.

     We had intended to spend only a few hours at the cemetery that day and planned to head for Plum Island. But the birding was too spectacular to leave and there always seemed to be more birds to see. Yet Plum Island birders were experiencing a similar fallout of warblers as described by Doug Chickering of Groveland:

     “If it is my fate to spend time during eternity in paradise I think I have a fairly clear notion as to what it will be like; or at least what paradise is like for this poor soul. Some of it anyway will be like today. I guess these special days come practically every May and every time one comes we are convinced that there never has been its equal. Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be no doubt that these are about the brightest days of the year. Even a day like today when there was no sun and there were even a few touches of rain. It was a day for the Warblers and apparently it made little difference where you were; as long as you were in Massachusetts and were searching for migrants.

     “I was on Plum Island and it seldom gets any better than today. The highlight for Lois and I was probably the Cape May Warbler; dark and crisp and out in the open; playing to the plaudits of the crowd. There is nothing like a Cape May Warbler or it’s equivalent to spread good cheer and a sense of camaraderie to an appreciative gathering of friends and strangers. However the Cape May was just the most obvious highlight.

     “The trees and edges were rife with birds. At times the shear number of them was almost overwhelming. Each tug of a branch or flicker of movement brought the promise of a nice bird and the possibility of a great moment of discovery. We would search the trees with disciplined method or flit from one motion to another frantic with the gnawing fear that a cherished moment was passing by . There would be the great sense of accomplishment to get a great look at the Blackburnian or whatever; immersing ourselves in the pure beauty of the sight and then the next minute feel slightly crestfallen at having missed the Chestnut-sided you hadn’t seen yet. (“Honest it right here a few seconds ago… I think I hear it across the road”)

     “Time stood still at every movement up in the oak fronds and it was spirited away before you knew the morning was nearly over. The birds are everywhere and you can’t be. That’s the glory of it. That’s the frustration of it. A day in Paradise. What more can a mortal soul ask for? It’s still early May. How about another?”

     We are hoping this Saturday will be one of those days as Doug and I, and a host of others, participate in this year’s 24 hour Bird-athon. Every year the Mass Audubon Sanctuaries send out teams of birders to count bird species and to raise funds in support Mass Audubon. Our efforts are on behalf of the Joppa Flats Education Center here in Newburyport, and the fine work they do to promote conservation and education to so many adults and school children in our communities.

     We will assuredly be out birding when you read this, and you can still contribute to our efforts by sending a tax-deductable contribution to Mass Audubon Joppa Flats, or you can go to my secure Bird-athon website and contribute online at www.firstgiving.com/stevegrinley I, and Joppa Flats, thank you for your support

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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