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My Life’s Birds: #361

December 16, 2009
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March 28, 1995 – Bentsen-RGV State Park, Tx – For a group of birds that is nearly universally considered to be one of the most diverse and colorful in the world, the Orange-crowned Warbler is something of an oddball.  Taken by itself, the subtle chartreuse plumage of both male and female can be beautiful,  even bright, when compared to the browns and grays on so much of North America’s avifauna.  But the Orange-crowned Warbler can’t really be compared to them, because it’s a warbler and therefore must stand in contrast to the rest of it’s family with their gaudy yellows, oranges, blues and greens.  It seems almost unfair for the Orange-crowned Warbler to have to compete with that in the eyes on birders, because it can’t win.  It stays destined to be the warbler of last resort, referred to in nearly every field guide since Peterson as a “confusion” species.  The afterthought to bring up once all of its brightly plumaged brethren have been summarily eliminated from consideration.

That’s even doubly so when the life Orange-crowned Warbler is spotted in South Texas, where it has to share the stage with skunk-headed flycatchers and kingfishers the size of ravens.  Even the flock of birds that produced this particular life bird also contained Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, a bird whose equally mundane appearance is at least tied to a restricted range.  Tag a bird with the descriptor “specialty” and suddenly all the brownish-gray in the world isn’t enough to detract from the interest surrounding it.  But the Orange-crowned isn’t really a specialty of anywhere either, as its range map turns nearly the whole of Canada colored, and there’s hardly a spot in the continental United States that doesn’t pass beneath its wings at some point on its yearly journey to and from South America.

Even so, it’s too easy to miss or dismiss for the vast majority of backyard birders who may rather turn lenses to a Blue Jay or Northern Cardinal.  There’s no judgement to be passed there, Jays and Cardinals are beautiful and charismatic and who’s to say a birder with even the knowledge of a Orange-crowned Warbler and the skill to pick it out at first glance wouldn’t do the same.  After all, the memory that stands out for me on this particular day isn’t the Warbler, it’s the Gray Hawk that sat for fifteen breathless minutes in the top of a dead mesquite tree.  This warbler, even as a lifer, was something of an afterthought.

But as it is, it’s not often that you are in a position to choose which life birds you come across and when you come across them.  Likely the Orange-crowned Warbler deserved better than it got from me that day.  Had I come across it on a Christmas Bird Count where the unexpected green glow popped out from a flock of Yellow-rumps, it probably would have gotten the respect due to it.  Context matters, in birding as in everything else.  All I can do from here on out is enjoy subsequent OCs with the fervor typically reserved for lifers.

Unless I’m birding the mountains in fall.  Those things are everywhere and that’s exhausting.

photo by goingslo via flickr ( CC BY 2.0)

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2 Comments
  1. December 16, 2009 12:09 pm

    This really tickled me. I live in Texas and we only see OCs during winter. I’ve always thought they got the short end of the plumage stick when compared to other warblers. Despite that, I’ve always thought of them as nothing short of beautiful, exotic visitors we host when it’s too cold up north. So reading through your post, I kept thinking, “Nate, get out of my head!”

  2. Nate permalink*
    December 16, 2009 2:31 pm

    @Jason- OCs winter here on occasion, and when I find them then I definitely think the same thing, that they’re just the thing to brighten up a dark day. I tend to watch them much more closely then rather than in fall when they’re fairly common.

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