Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Rare Warbler Delights Birders
May 18, 2019
By Steve Grinley
Mid-May finds us in the midst of warbler migration in Essex County. Some twenty species or more of these colorful butterflies of the bird world pass through our area each spring and fall. Numbers of the more common warblers will entertain birders, but less common species such as the hooded warbler or the Kentucky warbler are rare southern species that are particularly cherished and have been spotted this past week.
Even more rare may be the appearance of a hybrid warbler that is the result of our blue-winged warbler mating with the now uncommon golden-winged warbler. The dominant hybrid is called the Brewster’s warbler and the more rare recessive hybrid is called a Lawrence’s warbler. A Lawrence’s warbler was discovered on Plum Island, and Doug Chickering, now of Newburyport, was among those birders who enjoyed its presence. Doug shares that experience with us here:
“Birding on Plum Island this morning produced one of those transcendent and spectacular moments that suddenly appear during an ordinary, gray day of birding. From out of the chilly, colorless day, a day with little foliage and the threat of rain or at least mist, an extraordinary surprise burst forth. A brilliant Lawrence’s Warbler suddenly popped into view at the crosswalk at Hellcat among an astonished and perplexed group of birders.
“It took a little while to recognize the identity of the bird. After all, not many had ever seen one. But there it was in all its blazing glory.
“I wasn’t one the birders who was there at the first appearance but I came along early enough before the bird was identified … from all the brief looks. Several of the more experienced observers theorized that it was likely a Lawrence’s Warbler. The bird reappeared after a short interlude and it became clear that this was indeed a Lawrence’s Warbler.
“In the chilled day it moved around a lot; sometimes only glimpsed deep in the underbrush, and sometimes in a clear opening for all to see. Naturally the word spread over the island, and out over the texts and e-mails, and the number of observers grew quickly. The new arrivals were afraid that they had missed it. [But they were informed] that the bird was active and seemed to stay around and, even though was out of sight for the moment, would surely come back.
“And… the bird did just that, sometimes flitting around the edge of the road by the crosswalk, and sometimes making its way fitfully in the bushes north. I think that everyone who stayed got a better than average look. I left after an hour or so when the Lawrence’s Warbler flew to the top of a bare, high deciduous tree and then headed west and away. That was it for me. I had terrific looks and I had to run some errands that couldn’t be set aside.
“I did find the time to return in the late afternoon. I was surprised when I returned to find that the Warbler was still in the same approximate location. I joined Warren Tatro (who had not seen the bird; much to his chagrin). We waited impatiently at the crosswalk, occasionally staring at the movement of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Kinglets and a Blue-gray gnatcatcher. Then Warren caught sight of the Lawrence’s Warbler as it darted across the road and began feeding, and continuing the pattern of providing great looks, followed by glimpses, followed by brief appearances.
“When Warren left, I was joined by Bob Secator who was in that state of agonizing anxiety of arriving too late to see a spectacular bird. …We searched the underbrush right after he arrived and found ourselves searching for signs of movement, or a spot of yellow in the dull brown tangles. To no avail. Then I had just glanced to my left.
“There it is Bob, it’s right here beside me.” I said. Sure, enough the Lawrence’s had somehow emerged from nowhere and was calmly feeding not two feet from me. It proceeded to take short flights and stop at the grass, giving up better than spectacular views as it fed in a semi-casual fashion. It was so close that at times, I couldn’t use my binoculars…
“In the gray day and the fading afternoon, the Warbler seemed to glow. The back was gray- but it was a vibrant gray, a tone and richness beyond description. There was a large light-yellow patch on the wings and the yellow on the belly reached up into the head and neck were there was a classic Golden-winged [Warbler] pattern of black at the throat and around the eyes. The black was clear and perfect in shape and up in the face the yellow grew deeper and richer.
“But I though the highlight of plumage was the crown. I don’t think I have ever witnessed such a yellow. It shone in the fading light as if drawing upon an inner energy that seemed incandescent. It almost seemed it had come from a different reality, sometimes catching a reddish hue, sometimes changing to pure gold.
“It was a sight that was recorded by many cameras, but only partially because all photographs are two-dimensional, they can’t quite duplicate that special beauty. It was a sight that will attempt to cling in our memories, but we know that this too will fade in time. We must be satisfied with the moment; the moment that were rewarded with an in-depth encounter with the awesome beauty of the natural world.”
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