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Warbler Time!

Ed Robinson
May 10, 2024
A small yellow bird sits on a tree branch

Yellow Warbler (iStock photo from RT Images)

Every season of the year offers special times, unique experiences, and lasting memories. Following mud season, we all look forward to getting outside for fresh air, green grass, and early flowers like the crocus and hyacinth. This is a time of reawakening for the Earth and all her creatures. It can also be a time for cleansing the mind and soul of problems, if you will, a process of renewal.

Depending upon the latitude where you live, the peak of this renewal may fall between March and June but here in Maine, the month of May is magic. Golfers are back on the fairways, nets go up on the tennis courts, bikers are zipping along the paths, and boaters are thinking about removing the tarps to get on the water no later than Memorial Day. Anyone with even a passing interest in birds knows that May is a time of hustle to find a mate and to build a nest, all of it overlaid with a constant backdrop of heavenly music.

You cannot step out on the deck or your driveway without hearing fervent and incessant calls by musical American Robins, chippy Northern Cardinals, bouncy little Black-capped Chickadees, and maybe the jaunty Tufted Titmouse. We generally host a couple pairs of Gray Catbirds, always entertaining with their extensive repertoire of calls. The males of these species generally arrive early to stake out their territories and begin singing their breeding songs at full volume in hopes of attracting a female. Persistent birds begin singing around daybreak and may still be going at dusk, using a great deal of energy but compelled by the innate need to breed.

A small black, white, and orange bird sits on a tree branch

Blackburnian Warbler (iStock photo by Michael Stubblefield)

Yet May offers another kind of magic that is not so much about using your ears but using your brain and your eyes, along with a good set of binoculars. In our area, you can count on large numbers of migrating warblers stopping briefly along their northward migrations to rest and refuel. While warblers are capable of lovely songs, they are not so vocal when migrating since they must conserve energy and breeding will take place further to the north for many of these tiny birds. The lure for birders is that the warblers are in their prime breeding plumage, offering a wondrous array of colors wrapped around tiny packages of feathers in constant motion, often in heavy cover.

Everyone has their favorite birds, but it is hard to match the radiant orange neck of a male Blackburnian Warbler. The Magnolia Warbler is unmistakable with his black mask, white wing patches and thick black and yellow streaks on its chest and belly. Maybe you prefer the twin beauties known as the Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers, both partial to coniferous forest cover. While I am biased to Yellow Warblers and Hooded Warblers, I also enjoy the more subtly colored Palm Warblers and Tennessee Warblers that spend time around our Harpswell home. In short, there are warblers out there for you no matter your taste in birds!

small gray and yellow bird sits in evergreen branches

Nashville Warbler (iStock photo by Paul Reeves)

There are numerous habitats in town where you can find a dozen or more species of warblers on a pleasant morning walk. Curtis Farm Preserve is one of the best, but Long Reach Preserve is right up there. Smaller properties like Little Ponds Preserve along with Widgeon Cove Trail can also be productive. One of my favorite spots is Houghton Graves Park, a site of only four acres, but the combination of wetland habitat, old apple trees, and mature mixed forest cover rarely disappoints. I have often spent two hours or more there from sunrise until mid-morning, slowly moving from one spot to another, generally staying in place long enough for the birds to become comfortable with my presence. Ornithologist Nat Wheelwright will soon be leading bird walks at Otter Brook Preserve where you can easily hear and see dozens of species during a relaxed walk.

As in so many other endeavors, timing and location are important. While you can enjoy a panoply of birds around town on almost any day in May, even in the rain, some days the magic really cranks up. Like most birds, warblers favor nocturnal migration flights because they are less exposed to predators like the hawks and falcons. A night with a gentle southern breeze will see large numbers of birds moving north, taking the opportunity of a good tail wind. When morning arrives, the birds will be looking to rest and feed, often using elevated locations because they are readily accessible on a low-level flight path. Where things get interesting is when a sudden change in the weather forces an abrupt halt to migration and large numbers of birds pile into a concentrated area in what is often referred to as a drop or fallout. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, the birding can be spectacular.

A small black and white bird sits on a tree branch

Black and White Warbler (iStock photo by Paul Reeves)

During the first week of May I was fortunate to spend a lot of time outdoors at our old farm in New York’s Finger Lakes, situated on the northern edge of the Appalachian Mountain chain at just under 2,000 feet. One night we had a steady rain on a southwest wind, followed by a sudden warming as a front came in from the east. The morning dawned at nearly 60 degrees with heavy fog and no wind. A friend and I sat in a thick, brushy area for more than three hours starting at 5:00 AM, listening and looking at the flurry of activity around us. Early on we were treated to the sounds of Wild Turkeys beginning their day, along with the buzzy “peent” calls of an American Woodcock. This was followed by the American Robins, Song Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds announcing their presence.

Soon we were treated to an unending stream of music from a Brown Thrasher perched just over our heads and two male Gray Catbirds, along with the occasional drumming of a Ruffed Grouse on a downed aspen. Gradually the warblers began their chorus, with old friends like the Common Yellowthroat and two Ovenbirds, soon joined by a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Northern Waterthrush and an unusual Blue-winged Warbler. In the field in front of us, we enjoyed the acrobatic flights of Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds, Field Sparrows, and the far less common Savannah Sparrow. A Red-bellied Woodpecker, one of my favorite head-bangers, kept up a constant refrain in the nearby forest working on his chosen tree trunk.

small brown bird with black and white head sits in branch of bush

White-crowned Sparrow (Ed Robinson photo)

The morning yielded a few bonus visitors including a Scarlet Tanager, two Eastern Towhees and even a Bobolink, a species suffering rapid decline due to lost habitat. Without moving from our spot, we tallied over 40 species and had a marvelous time. As a nice add-on, I managed to snap a photo of a White-crowned Sparrow feeding on a nearby shrub. My friend finally stood up and announced, “I am happier than I have been in a long time!” This from a hard-working, stressed-out engineer and ex-footballer who is definitely not given to such touchy-feely statements!

Perhaps a good dose of bird song during Warbler Time can heal all wounds…

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