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Warblerama

October 4, 2010
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Up until the last week or so I’d been feeling that our fall migration was mostly a bust.  Between the lingering summer temperatures and the weather systems conspiring to hold birds up in parts farther north, I was worried that the whole of fall migration would blow past us on a day when I was otherwise indisposed, building and moving past me all too fast, more like the frantic sprint of spring than the long easy jog we’re usually familiar with around here.  I needn’t have really concerned myself; the nature of fall migration means the birds are more apathetic about moving, more keen to take in the sights, and I would eventually get my fall warblers even if it ended up taking an extra week or two for them to make their way to where I am.

It’s a battle I end up having to fight with myself every fall.  Maybe one of these years the compulsive need, the small-scale zugunruhe that more than drives me outdoors, but makes every glance at the treetops mildly anxiety ridden, will subside.  But maybe I don’t want it too either.  The quarry is warblers, and around here the fall offers more variety and numbers that you can get in spring.  From late August to mid-October, nearly anything is possible, but where and when they are is a crapshoot.

I had headed to Ebenezer Point Recreational Area on Jordan Lake hoping that warblers would be on the agenda.  This park is well known for its impressive views of the reservoir itself, which is great for scanning the water for waterfowl and gulls in the winter, but the inlets and peninsulas make for excellent land birding in the fall as well.  Songbirds are reluctant to cross open water, even if it’s no more than a couple hundred meters across, so birds tend to pile up in the north side of the lake shore until they reach critical mass, and all burst across the water in one loose flock of warblers.  It’s the same principle that makes a place like Magee Marsh on the shore of Lake Eire so productive in the spring, but writ tiny.  Instead of thousands of birds, it’s dozens, but still enough to make a morning.  I was banking on the recent cold bringing northwest winds to put the warblers on the move.

In the Southeast our default warbler, the one that buries itself deep in the souls of local birders, is the Pine.  They’re here year-round, though they make themselves scarce in late summer, and in the fall they make up the bulk of the warbler biomass one is likely to see.  The birds we find flocking, honest to god flocking this time of year, in trees from Murphy to Manteo run the gamut from the first year females notable for nothing so much as their lack of noteworthiness to the burnished gold males that field guide illustrators never ever seem to get right (though Sibley comes closest).  A good movement of Pines can be indicative of a good day for the other Parulines.  When I stepped out of my car I was hot with flock after flock of Pines in every plumage imaginable.  I had high hopes.

When you see enough of a certain bird you’re able to identify it just about anywhere.  So it is with Pine Warbler, but it’s exaggerated by the fact that Pine in general is a very distinctive warbler.  It’s big for starters, for a warbler at least, and made to seem bigger by its lethargic nature, its heavy bill and measured movements and seemingly ponderous, by warbler standards, wingbeats.  This is all not so useful for picking out Pine Warblers so much as it is for setting the base line, for zeroing out your warbler levels so that when something different comes along, you’re on it.  Like, say, a smaller, quicker Cape May Warbler.

Or, if we’re continuing to talk about this first flock, a Blackburnian, or a Yellow-throated.  Boom, boom, boom.  Now things are starting to get interesting.

When I look back on this day, it wasn’t so much the variety of warblers that made it special but the fact that, beyond the singletons of Cape May, Blackburnian, and Yellow-throated, I saw many multiples of each species.  Enough that I was able to get passable photos of all but two of the species I found yesterday, which is pretty darned impressive.  I believe this was because the northwest winds were blowing the birds to the far side of the park and concentrating them fairly low in the trees.  It was a perfect storm, and at this point I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.

The first Yellow-rumped Warblers rode the front in, a full week earlier than my previous early date.  I always enjoy the first Myrtles of the year, but it’s a bittersweet reminder that the fall warbler migration is wrapping up and while I love sparrows, I just can’t get myself excited about them in the same way.  If that makes me a bad birder then oh well.

Northern Parulas were thicker than I’ve ever seen them in one place.  This particular individual was the closest of a half dozen hanging out in this Sweet Gum.

Black-and-White Warblers were also present in good numbers.

A fall Chestnut-sided Warbler got all up in my face with no pishing ot anything, apparently trying to make up for the fact that I missed this species in the spring.  I guess I’ll forgive them.

A few American Redstarts are lingering, including a pair of stunning adult males, the first non-juveniles I’ve seen in several weeks.

And my old spark bird, Black-throated Blue Warbler, made sure to make an appearance as well.  Several actually, I ended up with 6 individuals.

All the warblers were great, but the most interesting sighting of the day was non-Paruline.  I finally put eyes to one of the Red-breasted Nuthatches that have been reported in the area over the last couple weeks.  This is predicted to be an irruptive year for this species and early returns definitely suggest this is the case.  The visitor from parts north was hanging out with the resident Brown-headed Nuthatches that are common in the pine trees around the parking area.  The Brown-heads though were having nothing to do with this yankee usurper, and hammering the other bird mercilessly, chasing it from tree to tree and attacking it when it would pause on a pine cone.  So much for southern hospitality.  It seems that the Civil War is still being fought in some quarters.

With that day in the bag, I feel like I can finally put a bow on fall migration.  Anything else from this point forward is icing.  Now to look forward to Spring of 2011…

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7 Comments
  1. October 4, 2010 8:28 am

    It was a good wood-warbler year here up north too, with a couple of pretty good individual days but also the typical strung-out slow motion migration. Now if only a CT Warbler would give me good looks this fall…then I’ll be ready to tackle sparrows.

  2. Nate permalink*
    October 4, 2010 10:05 am

    @Corey- A CT Warbler. Now you’re talking!

  3. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    October 4, 2010 4:27 pm

    I really hope the Red-breasted Nuthatches give us a nice irruption this year. They’re my favorite nuthatch, yet somewhat ironically, the only North American nuthatch I’m missing. Fingers crossed!

  4. October 4, 2010 6:28 pm

    I’ve had terrible luck with finding warblers this fall, even in the state’s major hotspots.

  5. October 5, 2010 8:41 am

    @Nate & Corey: CT Warbler, you know,… highly overrated if truth be told.

    Cheers, Nate!!
    I hope to be back soon, possibly before the year is through. Happy birding trails!!

  6. Nate permalink*
    October 6, 2010 3:05 pm

    @Robert- I have a feeling you should be able to turn one up this winter. Worst case scenario, go to Winston-Salem and find one there.

    @John- I had a fall that felt like that too, then Boom!

    @Jochen- I look forward to it!

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