My dad has never seen a Swainson’s Warbler.
That is not in any way meant to be a pejorative, Swainson’s Warblers are notoriously difficult birds to see. They choose to spend their time deep in the densest possible stands of Giant Cane, or in the case of the mountain population, in the densest possible stands of rhododendron. Either way, the key word there is “dense”. This is a bird for whom the often thrown around epiphet “skulker” was practically names for. This is the skulky skulker indeed. So skulky, in fact, that they were used to run supplies into East Germany in the days of the Cold War* and they were so effective that the Germans dubbed them vogelspfeffer, which is a regional dialect that, loosely translated, means “bird you have no business finding so don’t even bother looking”. This is also why all European “Warblers” are poor imitations of the Swainson’s Warbler.
*may not, in fact, be true
No, my dad’s failure to have laid eyes on this devious little Limnothylpis is not unusual so much as ironic. My dad created and runs an environmental leadership academy which offers as a significant part of its curriculum the restoration of habitat, in the form of replanting and managing stands of Giant Cane (Arundinaria sp.), specifically for Swainson’s Warbler. For the last two years local high school students have tended patches of cane in southwest Missouri and the bird hasn’t even had the good graces to show up to thank them. So not only is it secretive, it’s kind of a jerk.
With my family in North Carolina for the spring I sought to remedy this oversight with a trip to Howell Woods in Johnston County, just southeast of Raleigh. You may have immediately noticed that this site is not within my quad-county Big Year area, so why would I, in the midst of spring migration, carry off to somewhere else to count birds that won’t even make it on my final Big Year list? That, friends, is the risk I was prepared to run for the Swainson’s Warbler. So we arrived not long after sunset and headed into the swampy bottomlands that we hoped would hold this target of targets.
There were warblers. Lots of them. Black-and-White and Magnolia and Parula and Redstart and Yellow-throated and Pine and Palm and Prothonotary and Worm-eating. There were more Yellow-throated Vireos than I’d ever had in one place. I had my first of the year Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Acadian Flycatcher too. The forest was absolutely crawling with birds. Good birds, but none with the clear strident song of the Swainson’s that my dad is convinced has the cadence of the hook from the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”. Hey, whatever works.
Most pleasantly common were the Kentucky Warblers singing on territory. This is one of my favorites, but hard to find in the sprawl of the Triangle. Here in the dense southern hardwood forests they’re apparently doing very very well. We had many of them.
We covered the Outside Slough, the only slightly inappropriately named Warbler Way, the Bartram Trail. All of which offered excellent habitat, the sort of wet, heavy undergrowth and regular cane stands that Swainson’s is said to like. And we saw some great birds, ending up north of 70 for the day, but none of them were the Swainson’s Warbler, and all of them were birds that I needed for the Big Year I was running just one county over. So there’s that…
Leaving the anxiety inducing Big Year mechanitions aside, it was a great day in the field. And though we didn’t find Swainson’s, the 16 other species of warblers on the day made it one of my best days in the field in recent years.
Bring on the rest of them!
A quick trip to Mason Farm in the afternoon did, however, net four new bird for my Big Year. Yellow-breasted Chat, Worm-eating Warbler, House Wren, and a nice Blue-winged Warbler. Up to 140 for the year for the Triangle.