FAUNA: Chasing fall warblers

by Mary Parker Sonis
Fall has arrived, and it is time for migrating warblers to make their way south for the winter. Birders are everywhere, searching the canopy for the multitudes of tiny songbirds that are making their journeys to wintering grounds in Mexico and South America. Saturday before last was a perfect birding day – the air was cool, the sun was shining, and at 8 a.m. Mason Farm Biological Reserve was already full of avid birders, binoculars expertly cradled in chest holsters that resemble tiny baby carriers.

Birders are a friendly lot. They like to share their knowledge and special finds. I met a group of four women who happily told me of a spot where they had seen a group of black-and-white warblers. Off I went to the special tree, but the warblers had vacated, and the only sound came from one of the more public cardinals that regularly fill the trees.

A male common yellowthroat warbler. Photo by Mary Parker Sonis

I then ran into a man and his young son, who had already photographed a Swainson’s thrush, a scarlet tanager and a yellow-billed cuckoo. They had accomplished all this in the reserve parking lot, so back to the parking lot I went. I looked around and saw nothing. I used my telephoto lens to search the very same trees where they had made these excellent sightings, but I came up empty-handed.

Finally, a large group of smiling birders came trundling into the parking lot and enthusiastically asked me if I had seen the large group of blue grosbeaks that were occupying the tall grasses in the first field.

“You should see them all – they are so close!” they told me.

I wasn’t after blue grosbeak that day, but the birds were all eluding me, so I figured that this was a sure bet and off I went to the first field. I saw a single mockingbird, but the grosbeaks were nowhere to be seen. What was I doing? I was dutifully following the instructions of some fine birders and chasing all over the place for discoveries that were not mine. I decided to follow my own course.

The day before, I heard the calls and caught a glimpse of a warbler in a thicket by the creek. This was a muddy spot that caught more shade than morning light, but it was an appealing spot to me. It was now 10 a.m., and the birders were leaving for the day. The reserve was emptying out, and I now wandered by myself, hoping to find a few of the warblers I heard lightly calling in the trees.

A male common yellowthroat warbler. Photo by Mary Parker Sonis

I walked to that muddy curve on the trail and stood waiting. A minute passed, and then a common yellowthroat popped out of the brush and perched a mere 15 feet before me. This is a skulking warbler of the low thickets and marsh. He is a stunning little beauty with a brilliant yellow throat and a bandit’s mask of black across his eyes. He lingered, and I had ample time for photos. The day was looking up. The birds were easier to find once I gave up chasing another person’s discovery.

The next find was located on the main trail. The beautiful black-and-whites warblers were working a tree near the entrance to the reserve. These warblers are known for their very un-warbler like appearance and foraging techniques. Most warblers have combinations of black, yellow, gray and olive tones, but the black-and-white is a two-toned striped bird that is unmistakable.

Most warblers flutter in the leaves searching out insects, but the black-and-white runs up and down the limbs and trunks of trees much like a nuthatch. This particular warbler has a very long hind toe and nail that enables it to race headlong down trees with a sure grip. The grip is so secure that this fellow doesn’t even brace his tail against the tree as he forages in the bark for wood-boring beetles, bark beetles, leafhoppers and caterpillars.

A male black-and-white warbler perches in typical foraging position. Photo by Mary Parker Sonis

To the benefit of the forest, the black-and-whites take out many of the pests that destroy hardwood trees. They tend to migrate earlier in the spring season and later in the fall season, as they are not dependent on green foliage to find food. The voice is a high squeak “wee see wee see wee see,” like the squeak of a kid’s wagon in need of oil.

The rest of the morning was filled with all sorts of birds hunting the trees for insects to fuel their long journey south of the border. For an amateur birder like myself, the lesson of the day was to run your own race. The trails are full of avid bird watchers who may recognize 30 different species in a single outing, but the pleasure of the day is in finding your own discoveries along the way.

A male black-and-white warbler enjoys larval prey. Photo by Mary Parker Sonis