Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Rare, southern warbler visits Plum Island
June 02, 2007
Steve Grinley

     A week ago last Thursday, I was standing in the post office lobby before work, mailing some packages, when I received a phone call. It was Deb La Roy at the Mass Audubon Joppa flats Banding Station on Plum Island: “Steve, we have a bird here that we can’t identify. We think that it could be a Swainson’s warbler, but we’re not sure. Can you come down and ID it?”

     Now to put this into perspective, I was about 10 minutes away from having to open my store for business that day. I was 20 minutes away from seeing a bird that I have seen well only a couple of times in my life and those times were in Delaware and North Carolina. This would be a first record for me in the state of Massachusetts and, I was quite sure, one of few records ever in Massachusetts. Not much indecision there.

     I headed for the island and went straight to the banding station. I met up with Bill Gette, the director of Mass Audubon Joppa Flats, who was also able to get there. We walked in together, and Janet Standley brought out of a bag a small brown bird with a brown cap and a very large bill. It was, indeed, a Swainson’s warbler! Janet said that they had been hearing this strange song in the area for a couple of days. Bill then said that he and Jerry Bertrand had led a Wednesday morning bird walk the day before and had heard what had to be this bird. At the time, they dismissed it a variant song from a Louisiana waterthrush, which sounds remarkably similar. They, and others who heard the bird, didn’t even consider a Swainson’s warbler because it is so rare in New England.

     Janet measured, weighed and banded the bird, and I got to hold it (quite a thrill!) while photos were taken. Some of these photos can be seen at http://nebirdsplus.org/SwainsonsWarbler.htm. Bill then released the bird, and we hoped that it would stick around for others to see and hear.

     The Swainson’s warbler is one of those denizens of southern swamps that is more often seen than heard. Its loud call, like a waterthrush, carries through the dense vegetation. But because the bird forages low in dense vegetation, it is most difficult to get a good look at one. It is not one of those yellow warblers that sits up on a branch in the sun and sings away. This brown bird, though a little larger than your typical warbler, skulks through the underbrush and avoids being seen. Limited use of recordings are used in Southern swamps to try to draw these birds out for a look. On the North Carolina trip that I took last year on Memorial Day, I did get a brief, but great look at this bird when the leader deployed such a tactic.

     For the next week, this bird continued to be heard in the same general area around the banding station, but playing recorded bird songs is banned on national wildlife refuges and those 10s of birders who came to Plum Island to see this bird could only stand at the road and listen, and hope that the bird would forage close enough to be seen. For the numbers of birders who came to catch a rare glimpse, there was Memorial Day weekend traffic, limited parking in the immediate area at the Warden’s and the North Pool Overlook, and law enforcement rangers actively ticketing illegally parked cars to contend with. Still, the birders came, and some prevailed. A few lucky birders caught a glimpse of the bird now and then, but most who stood vigil for hours were only entertained by the Southern visitor’s song.

     As it turns out, this Swainson’s warbler is only the fourth record for the state. I was lucky enough to get the call to see this bird (thank you again, Deb), and I was so very lucky to actually hold it in my hand! It was worth more than two in the bush, I would say!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
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