Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Late Migrants Sought After As May Ends
May 28, 2011

by Steve Grinley

     The weather has finally turned, with southwest winds now accompanied by warmth and sunshine. This May migration has been a good one in that many songbirds trickled in during the cold, rainy weather that we had. Many birds lingered longer to refuel before proceeding further north under such conditions. This gave birders more opportunity to see such rarities as yellow-throated and prothonotary warblers.

     As May comes to an end, we are in the waning stages of warbler migration evidenced by the large percentage of female birds (which follow after the males) and the number of blackpoll warblers present, usually heralding migration’s end. But there are still many species moving through during this last week of May.

     I went to Plum Island after work on Wednesday evening because of the report that there were a couple of mourning warblers seen along the Hellcat Trail on the refuge, as well as some flycatchers. Mourning warblers are one of the last warblers to move through on their way to the mountains. They are a large warbler with greenish back, yellow under parts, gray hood and males have a distinct black throat. They are secretive birds, usually skulking through the underbrush undetected. Their song is an emphatic and distinctive: “Cheery, cheery. chorry, chorry”.

     I proceeded to Hellcat, and while walking down the boardwalk, I ran into Susan Carlson who said that she just saw a mourning warbler in the Goodno Woods. A minute later I was there, and realizing that I missed seeing the bird by only minutes. I, and several others, waited, listened and looked deeply into the underbrush for this elusive warbler. A female Canada warbler and male and female yellowthroats dressed in similar color combinations as the mourning warbler, kept appearing in the area, giving us pause. Still, after almost an hour, I decided to try another time.

     Before I left the Goodno Woods, I heard a “peent, peent, peent.” Normally I would expect a woodcock giving such a call, probing in this muddy area, and having nested nearby in years past. But this call was less deep, less nasal, than that of a woodcock. A nighthawk, perhaps? The next time I heard it, I was closer to the road and it sounded as if it was coming from the trees. I scanned the trees for a bird sitting parallel on a branch. It wasn’t until it called a third time that I spotted it on a branch near the road. After watching the bird for a bit, some cars passed along the road and the bird flew off, “peenting” as it went.

     My thoughts turned back to the mourning warbler and I realized that my best chance to see that bird would be to hear it sing. To hear it sing, I would have to try early in the morning. So the next morning, I awoke early and I was on the refuge by 5:30 am. Shortly thereafter, I ran into Doug Chickering as we both looked at saltmarsh sparrows in the marsh before Lot 2.

     I continued down the island, driving slowly through the S Curves (between Lot 3 and the Maintenance Area) with my windows down when I heard a mourning warbler singing on the right side of the road opposite the 2nd large Oak tree(s) on the left. I stopped and listened and then saw motion. I watched as the bird made its way to the edge of the road. It proceeded to move low along the edge of the road, often perching to give me stunning looks from inside the car!

     I got out of the car slowly to watch without the windshield, and the mourning warbler continued to show itself well. It eventually flew across the road and then up to the oak tree. This was the first time I have seen one perched so high. Doug Chickering drove up, and just as he got out of the car, we saw the bird dart back across the road and land deeper into the thicket. We waited for some time, but the bird didn’t sing or appear again while we were there. Doug did find a black-billed cuckoo calling in the oak tree above us before that bird, too, flew off.

     Doug and I were later on the Hellcat Marsh Trail and found 2 alder and 1 yellow-bellied flycatcher there. There was also a good selection of warblers including Canada, Wilson’s, and several blackburnian warblers. The most abundant warblers were blackpolls, those warblers that come through late in migration and signal that the end of migration is near!

     The winds continue from the southwest this weekend, so the last of the songbirds should be moving through – maybe even into June. Enjoy this beautiful weather and get out and see, and listen to, some birds.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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