Spring migration is every birder’s favorite time of year. Even the lazy ones, like me, get up at the crack of dawn to head to Miantonomi Park, Parker Farm in Jamestown, or Rome Point in North Kingstown, to listen and look for bright jewels amongst the leaves.
Every year, I am thrilled to see the male scarlet tanager with its bright red body and black wings, and the glowing orange Baltimore oriole that migrated all the way from South and Central America to breed. I jump for joy when I spot the first male rose-breasted grosbeak in a tree feeding on caterpillars. The stunning beauty of these feathered creatures and their melodic songs make me happy, but it is their return from so far away that gives me hope for the world.
It is the return of the warblers that really sends the birding crowd over the moon. While orioles and grosbeaks are about the size of an American robin, with tanagers being just a bit smaller, the warblers are tiny colorful creatures between four to five inches in length. Despite being so little, many of them also travel from Central and South America, through Rhode Island, and to Canada to breed. The distance they fly, with stops to feed along the way, is impressive, but the fact that they only weigh 0.5 of an ounce or less is astounding.
Like all the migrants, warblers brave the hazards of migration to take advantage of the plethora of insects available in spring to feed their young. All the gnats, blackflies and caterpillars that humans find annoying are a critical food source for nesting birds.
There are more than 50 species of warblers that breed in North America. In Rhode Island, you can possibly see 26, although some are elusive and rare. Most warblers feed primarily on insects, so they need to go south for the winter. But you can find yellow-rumped warblers, fondly called butter-butts, here in the winter feeding on berries.
The first warblers to arrive in April are species that overwinter in the southern United States or the Caribbean. Pine warblers, aptly named because they nest in pine groves, along with waterthrushe are early arrivals. The palm warbler was named by a scientist that found one on the island of Hispaniola, where there are a lot of palm trees. Ironically, this tail-wagging, rusty capped warbler heads all the way to Canada’s boreal forest to breed, far from sandy beaches and palm trees.
The first yellow warbler of the year is a buttery delight. The bright male has rusty stripes on his breast and sings a “sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet” song repeatedly from the forest edges and suburban tangles of honeysuckle and briars. Once you learn that song, you will realize just how many yellow warblers call your neighborhood home.
The range of color and patterns in warblers is part of what makes them so much fun to look for in the spring. The birders who participated in the Conanicut Island Spring Bird Count on May 20 found 19 species of warblers on the island. They ranged from 154 yellow warblers to 43 common yellowthroats to just one hooded warbler, one blue-winged warbler and one chestnut-sided warbler. The rarest find of the day was a single Canada warbler spotted by Ian Krider, an excellent birder in his teens.
You can get a sense of the warblers’ colors just from their names. A black-throated blue warbler is just that, as is the black-and-white warbler and the blue-winged warbler. So many colors, so little time before many of them head north to breed.
The American redstart is one of my favorite warblers because its bold, black-and-orange colors are striking, its song distinct, and it tends to be at eye level rather than at the top of the trees. During warbler season, I spend a lot of time straining my neck to peer up into the leaves and end up with what is commonly known as “warbler whiplash.”
Like redstarts, the common yellowthroat breeds in Rhode Island, usually in or near wetlands. Both males and females have a bright yellow throat, but the male sports a black mask across his face. They are wren-like in their silhouette and behavior, often sneaking around in the shrubbery or posing with a cocked tail before bursting into loud song, “witchety, witchety, witchety.” In fact, I saw my first one this year at Miantonomi Park skulking around with a house wren in a tangle.
Each song the male sings is unique. Some birders have a great memory for songs and can use their ears to identify most birds, but many of us must re-learn songs every year. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has recently modified its app, Merlin, so it can identify bird songs for you. Now you see everyone walking around with their phones pointed at the trees. In my mind, it’s totally cheating to use the app, but I tell myself I am just confirming what I already know.
There is still time to go outside and listen for the birds, whether they are setting up territories in your backyard or moving through to buggier climes. In the feathered creature lies the seeds of hope and happiness.
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