There are two birding dates I celebrate every year. I call March 2 “Chickadee Day” because on March 2, 1975, I saw my first Black-capped Chickadee, the first bird on my life list, at Baker Woodlot on the Michigan State University campus. After that, I spent at least a few hours almost every day looking for and trying to identify birds. By May 11, I had my lifelist up to 30 species, which seemed like an awful lot at the time. And on that morning, what I now commemorate as “Warbler Day,” I encountered wave after wave of warbler flocks on the Red Cedar Woodlot on campus, and managed to identify four of them.
I’d read the warbler section in my Peterson and Golden guides over and over, but the sheer number of species in the array was daunting. I decided that I’d only count a warbler on my list when I could see every field mark as I kept one individual in sight. Warblers are so animated, flitting here and there in their quest for insects, that this was harder than I’d anticipated.
My first was relatively easy—the Black-and-white Warbler. It was easy to see that my bird had only black and white plumage, without a trace of yellow or buffy. The only other warbler with simple black and white plumage is the Blackpoll Warbler, but it has a solid black cap without a center white stripe, white cheeks, and yellow on both the bill and feet.
My second took longer to figure out, plus a stroke of luck. Nashville Warblers have a gray face with a perfect circle of white feathers around the eye, olive-gray back and wings, and a pure yellow underside from the throat to the undertail coverts. The larger Connecticut Warbler has a gray hood without a yellow throat—that one was easy to exclude.
That one even sang while I was reading about it, and the description, zee, zee, zoo-zoo-zee, was easy to match to the song.
Oddly enough, I did not identify what was almost certainly the most abundant warbler thereabouts that day, or all spring. To identify a Yellow-rumped Warbler using the rules I’d set for myself, I’d need to be able to see the male’s yellow crown, epaulets, and rump all while I had the book open to the right page.
I’d stayed in the woodlot longer than I’d planned and had to rush to my environmental education class. One guy in there, named Dave Catlin, was a Real Birder, and I gushed to him about my experience. Some of the Real Birders I’d already encountered were rather snooty, and would never have taken seriously someone with a lifelist of 34 who had just identified her first warblers. But Dave seemed almost as thrilled as I was, listening with joy and excitement to every detail. That was wonderfully affirming, and made birding into a shared pleasure.
Every year on Warbler Day, I think of my first four warblers and Dave Catlin. I did manage to tease out the identification of my lifer Yellow-rumped Warbler that autumn, even in its drabber fall plumage.
The next spring, it was Dave Catlin who was with me when I saw my first male Yellow-rump in full breeding plumage. He also showed me my lifer Hermit Thrush and Winter Wren. I love that my learning about nature also gave me more appreciation for the best of human nature.