The Curse of the Swainson’s Warbler
The Swainson’s Warbler is one of the most enigmatic breeding birds in North America. It’s a warbler of course, from a family of famously gaudy species who quicken the pulse of every birder on the continent, but it’s singularly plain in both plumage and behavior, lacking even breast spot or bobbing back end to distract from its modest adornment. It’s not particularly uncommon, subject to the sort of sad population declines that many of our neotrops have experienced in recent years, but not exceptionally so in that regard. There are, in fact, places in its breeding range in the Southeast United States where it’s downright easy to track down, though actually putting binoculars on the bird is another matter. And for all those reasons it’s more or less passed over by the majority of birders, many of whom seem to be somewhat surprised by its very existence, but no less enthusiastic to make an effort for one.
And so it was with a group of 10 enthusiastic birders I made the trip to Howell Woods in Johnston County just south of Raleigh. I was leading a field trip for the spring meeting of the Carolina Bird Club conveniently, for me at least, held in the Triangle on the event of the organization’s 75th Anniversary, a pretty amazing and noteworthy accomplishment. My goal, should I choose to accept it, was to get these birders on a Swainson’s Warbler, and Howell Woods is the place to get them, provided you’re not able to drive out on the coastal plain.
But the kicker is, I’ve never even had any luck with Swainson’s Warblers at Howell Woods, having been skunked by them every time I’ve visited the site. So while outwardly my confidence was high, inwardly I was wondering if these birders wouldn’t have been better served by visiting this site without me and my Swainson’s Warbler repellent. In any case, I had hopes that Kentucky Warblers would show too, and that maybe the Mississippi Kites would come out to play too. Nothing too ambitious, just a clean sweep of my three targets.
We started the morning walking along the densest part of the trail. I had hoped that we could get those warblers out of the way early and move on free of any sort of lingering obligation to really work at them. A Hooded Warbler sang avidly and responded to playback with aplomb. Everyone got good look and with one of the classic southern swamp warblers out of the way I was feeling pretty good about this trip. A nearby singing Kentucky Warbler offered the opportunity to get people familiar with a song we would heard many many times of the course of the day, but the bird never came closer than about 20 feet from the trail, and no one was diving into that tick motel to chase it down.
A Barred Owl hunting over a stagnant slough was a good find early on, and any day with a daylight owl has to be considered a good one. But still the Swainson’s Warblers were mute.
With some disappointment I led my group back out to the field to the parking lot for a bathroom break when a small raptor streaked across the sky to begin hawking over the shorter grass. A Mississippi Kite, and probably the longest shot of our target species, was soon joined by another, and another. The trio dove on each other, on big grasshoppers, on pesky Common Grackles, and put on a real show coming as close as 30 feet directly over our heads. It was a life bird for two in the group, a state bird for many others, and for me, the best experience I’ve had with the species in the state and maybe in my entire life. But it’s impossibly to avoid breathless superlatives when dealing with raptors of this caliber.
The day drug on with no sign of Swainson’s Warbler, and even the Kentuckys were hardly cooperative. Aside from a very brief look by me and one other individual who happened to be standing by me, the birds stayed tantalizingly out of sight. Other warblers made up for it, and nearly all of the breeders were tallied, including a good number of Worm-eating. Big misses included Northern Parula and American Redstart, so perhaps there were dips as, or even more, surprising than that elusive brown one.
Open country warblers were crown-pleasers though. We saw a small handfull of Chats and heard their crazy songs, and the pines were hopping with apparently on territory Prairie Warblers
We broke for lunch with that big zero still hanging over our (and more likely my) heads, After we ate, we headed back into the spots where the birds had been seen the day before. We played tapes, we pished until our lips were blue, and we listened hard. it’s not easy to get a group of 10 to shut up long enough to do some really deep listening, but they did. And still, my curse stands. The Swainson’s Warbler, that picture of skulky brown and gray, had skunked me again.
Maybe next time.