Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Warbler Report

It’s become an annual thing—the mid-May trip to Forestville State Park in SE Minnesota to greet the warblers coming north. These colorful little birds pass through every year, sometimes in droves, on their way to nesting grounds in the north woods. A particular species might be in the area for little more than a few days. It’s true, they also pass through the Twin Cities, and they appear again in the fall on their way south, but they aren’t singing much by that time, having already mated and raised a family, and most of them have lost their color, too.

Let’s face it, part of the enchantment of the annual trip south is that we’re heading toward warmer weather. And Forestville itself, with its rolling hills, abandoned village, lovely flowing stream, high bluffs, and bluebell-strewn river flats, would be a pleasant place to be at any time of the year.

But this year was a little different. In the first place, the warm weather arrived in Minneapolis sometime in early April. And we had already stopped in Forestville in mid-April in the course of our visit to the Ibsen Festival in nearby Lanesboro. Due to the unusually fine spring we were having, we decided to make our official birding trip on the first weekend in May. It never occurred to us that the warblers in Central America weren’t paying much attention to the weather reports in Minnesota.

A few weeks does make a difference all the same. On our mid-April trip we saw 40-odd species but no warblers. Two weeks later the count had risen to 73… but still very few warblers. Last weekend, with the temperature considerably lower than it had been, we returned to the park, and on this occasion we finally began to catch sight of some of those lovely little denizens of the forest in healthy numbers.

The early-arriving species are always the same. You see the myrtle warblers, with their multi-dimensional but scattered and not-altogether-harmonious arrangement of yellow and black patches. Then, perhaps, you may catch sight of an elegant black-and-white warbler strutting along the trunk of a tree like a nuthatch, covered with thin black stripes from head to tail. The palm warbler is a humble bird, with a subtle splash of yellow under his incessantly bobbing tail, faint stripes on the breast, and a pleasant tan cap. And the waterthrush, always unexpected but welcome, though you may be hard-pressed to say whether it’s a Louisiana waterthrush or a northern waterthrush. The redstarts, often so numerous, were few and far between, and it was not until mid-morning of our second day that we began to see the bright yellow warblers chasing one another through the treetops. We heard a few ovenbirds—and Hilary got a good look at one of them. We heard some common yellowthroats, and I got a good look at one. But the list of common warblers that we didn’t see would be a long one. I listened to the ascending ratchet of the northern parula for fifteen minutes but couldn't spot him.

One bird that we see every year at Forestville—sometimes in the same tree—is the blue winged warbler. This bright yellow bird has a grayish-blue wing and a thick black mask across his eye. His call is very distinctive, the second part consisting of a relaxed descending slobber. He was there again this year. Several, in fact.

Perhaps the most unusual bird we saw was a Bell’s Vireo. The temperature dropped below freezing in the night. And in the morning we discovered that we’d forgotten to bring one of the most important camp devices—the plastic holder for the coffee filter! But with coyotes howling and towhees chattering and barred owls hooting through the night, who cares?

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