Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fall Warblers

Yellow-rumped Warbler

(Transcript of For the Birds for September 19, 2011)

Living in the Northland has a great many amenities. The Northern Lights. Falling asleep to the sounds of loons. Winter visits by owls from the far north and the boreal forests. Hawk and songbird migration. Of all the unique treasures right here in our own backyard, I think the one I value most is our abundance of warblers.

Black-throated Green Warbler

From early May through early October, we can count on seeing warblers, many of which don’t just migrate through but raise their babies in the north woods. I love warblers for their varied songs, colorful plumage, and daintiness. When I was a little girl, I once spotted a mixed flock of migrating warblers in the maple tree outside my bedroom window. I’d never seen or even imagined such exquisite birds in my life. My mother thought someone’s canaries had gotten loose, but these were far more vivid than my grandpa’s canaries, so I figured they must be the angels of all the canaries that had sacrificed their lives saving miners. When I opened my first field guide and discovered pages and pages of warblers, I realized what these angel birds really were, but the mystical magic of that first sighting touched me so deeply that seeing warblers has always filled me with quiet joy.

By mid-September, most warblers have headed south of here. These insectivores build up their babies’ bodies on the huge numbers of insects and spiders that emerge during our summers. For them, the north woods is the right place to raise children. But after that job is finished, they head southward, most going all the way to the tropics. Their bodies, weighing far less than a birthday card, are fragile yet amazingly sturdy. They travel hundreds of miles at night, their overheated muscles cooled in the night air as they navigate using star patterns. By day they rest, feed, and mosey southward in more leisurely fashion.

Warblers don’t sing in fall, and usually stay fairly hidden in dense foliage—a wise practice because Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins time their migration to feed on these tiny travelers. We have our best chances of seeing warblers in our backyards right when chickadees are visiting our feeders. Warblers seem to key in on chickadee calls—familiar sounds no matter where they were hatched and raised—and chickadees don’t mind them tagging along with their flocks.

Black-capped Chickadee

Chickadees know where the best trees and shrubs are for feeding, where predators may be lurking, and all the ins and outs of their home turf, and share this information with these strangers passing through. When I’m stuck at home during migration, I often run outside when chickadees are about to see if any warblers are lurking in the shrubs and trees. Only rarely do warblers come to feeders, and it takes patience to see them hiding out in fall, but there’s a special joy in uncovering them.

Black-and-white Warbler

By late September, most warblers are well beyond north country. The last two to pass through in good numbers are the Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

and the Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

At month’s end, these may still be abundant. In five hours on the morning of October 1, 1988, from the Lakewood Pumping Station just north of Duluth, I counted 30,000 warblers passing along the North Shore. Homeland Security has closed off that splendid spot, tragic evidence that in some ways, the terrorists have won, but even if we’ve lost an important vantage point for viewing their migration, we can still see these little treasures by simply paying attention. Watching warblers is the cheapest road to real riches that I can think of.

Palm Warbler