Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Warblers Challenge the Best of Birders
May 19, 2012

By Steve Grinley

     The southwest winds that we have had the past couple of weeks have certainly brought in the birds. Hummingbirds, orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks are returning to backyard feeders. There were at least a dozen hummingbirds on Plum Island this past week. The warblers have been streaming through along the coast, with localities such as Nahant, Marblehead Neck, and Plum Island hitting a bonanza of birds this past week.

     Some of the more unusual warblers have made an appearance including Kentucky warblers at Mount Auburn Cametery in Cambridge and the Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Worm-eating warblers have been seen in Nahant Thicket and hooded warblers have been seen a few days this week on Plum Island. These three warblers can be particularly hard to see. The Worm-eating warbler likes to forage high in the canopy of a tree. Kentucky and hooded warblers dart in and out of low thickets. These birds are much more easily heard than seen.

     One such challenge was encountered by Doug Chickering and Lois cooper of Groveland when they attempted to try to find the Kentucky warbler at the Mass Audubon Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary last weekend. Doug shares their quest with us here:

     “When Lois Cooper and I arrived at the small parking lot at the Marblehead Sanctuary we could hear the Kentucky Warbler singing loud and clear. I had received a call from Tom Graham about an hour before and he had seen the bird right out in the pathway. From all the other reports we had seen or heard we had developed the distinct impression that this would be a very cooperative Kentucky Warbler.

     “When we left the car the bird continued to sing nearby. It seemed as if all we would have to do is take a few steps up the pathway past the kiosk and the singing bird would be right there. Any bird singing that loudly and that close would be easily seen. A little over an hour later I managed a brief, decidedly mediocre look. Lois never saw it at all.

     When we walked into the sanctuary one of the first things I noticed was that the gigantic Maple tree that had marked the entrance ever since I could remember, the biggest I had ever seen; was gone. Perhaps this was an omen. It was a particularly dark and gloomy morning.

     “As we entered the trail it started to rain a little. The Warbler continued to sing; it was close by. Everyone we had talked to had seen it. We would too. It was only a matter of time. We stopped maybe twenty paces down the pathway. The Kentucky Warbler was between us and the parking lot. Despite its continuing vocalizing we couldn’t find the bird. It started to rain harder and so picked up in intensity that it sent me scurrying back to the car for the umbrella.

     “For a while the bird was nearby; periodically singing. The distinctive song would come from high in the trees; from a very distinctive position; we strained to see it and then it would sing from a different location; and not once could either of us detect any motion. A little while on we were joined by a couple who had already seen the bird. They too had to wait and they stopped to help us find this elusive Warbler. Just the maddeningly close song; no movement; not a flicker, not the slightest motion. Every tug of motion was the raindrops on the leaves. Nothing.

     “Once I saw some movement in a tree from the location of the song and picked up a Black-and white Warbler. Then the sound began to move away; back to where we could barely hear it. And it rained harder. The helpful couple finally decided to retreat to their car; as did Lois. I held my ground for a while, allowing my frustration and disappointment build. Kentucky Warbler had done this to me before. A pox on all those people who would tilt their heads in wonderment and assure me that they had killer looks at this bird.

     “Bitter and resentful I wasn’t about to give in. I retreated to the car to wait for the warbler return and the rain to let up. Finally it did return and I went out for another bout of futility. I even considered the unthinkable; maybe I could take this bird on call. It was only a passing weakness. I will take a Black Rail on call and a Whip-poor-will; but not a Kentucky Warbler; especially not a Kentucky Warbler that chose to taunt me close up.

     “The helpful people came back out and we were joined by Paul and Nancy Schau. It started to spit rain again and again the Warbler began to sing and move through the trees and the underbrush like a malevolent phantom. Then suddenly we saw a yellowish bird hop into a dark tangle of tree trunks. It paused and I got right on it. Kentucky Warbler no doubt; then as if it suddenly realized the mistake it had made it moved off with the same quick motion; vanishing once again into the next dimension. Still it was offering up a song.

     “I was cold and wet and Lois was not afflicted with the desperate need to see this bird; so we left. Sometimes finding a rare and beautiful bird is a fantastic memorable moment; sometimes it is just a relief that it’s over.”

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