Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spring Warbler Migration - Wood Lake

For many birders, the arrival of the warblers every spring is the peak of the birding year. Colorful and diverse, but also tiny and often very active amid the higher branches, many warblers remain elusive, and often difficult to identify. They’re also fleeting. Their arrival is their departure, to a large degree. Many species are just passing through on their way to nesting grounds further north.

The myrtle warbler is the first to arrive, and they’ve been in the Twin Cities for several weeks now at least. It’s easy to admire the first three or four you see, but they soon become so numerous that the thrill palls. All the same, I saw one this morning that was dazzling; the light must have been just right.

This morning Hilary and I ventured down to Wood Lake Nature Preserve in Richfield, to see if the broader migration of warblers had gotten underway in earnest. It has.

We were hardly inside the gate when Hil spotted a black-and-white climbing zig-zag fashion up the thick bark of a cottonwood tree. Not long afterward we saw our first yellow warbler (pictured above). Bright yellow with beady black eye and subtle orange stripes on the chest. Yellow warblers tend to look youthful and energetic. I might even go so far as to call them “dashing.”

As we made our way around the north east end of the lake other species made their appearance one by one. They weren’t present in floods, like they are in some years. But one or two is plenty, especially if you get a good look. We came upon a common yellowthroat amid the cattails, redstarts here and there, and a chestnut-sided warbler off in the southeast corner of the park where the touch-and-smell trail for the seeing impaired used to be.  

I heard five or six northern parulas and spotted one high up in a poplar. Well, it wasn’t an exceptional sighting. Perhaps our most unusual sighting was of a Canada warbler, with his yellow chest and pale black necklace. The best sighting—fantastic bird, fantatic view—was of a magnolia warbler, which is a sort of super-myrtle, with yellow chest, mask, black necklace, broad white wing-bar, and white band on the underside of the trail.

Though the warblers were the main attraction, there were other new arrivals, too. The Baltimore orioles were everywhere, singing their honeyed songs. And we also got a very good look at a blue-headed vireo. We were approaching the visitors’ center on our way back to the car when I spotted a nondescript warbler-like bird poking around in the dirt on the side of the path. The coloration was obvious—green-gray back, grayish underside, faint line across the eye. But the name didn’t come. And then it did.

I don’t want to keep you guessing. It was a Tennessee warbler. In the gray morning light the colors were more vivid than normal, which had me fooled…and you don’t often see them on the ground.

On our little morning escapade we’d netted perhaps a fifth of the warblers we might possibly have seen. That’s not bad for an hour walk in the woods.

A brief visit to Hyland Park Reserve in early afternoon was quieter, though we did come upon three palm warblers on the path in front of the nature center. On our way home we pulled into the parking lot at Hyland Lake on a whim, and almost immediately came upon a beautiful Nashville warbler in a small tree at eye level. That perfect eye-ring! And a wonderful transition from greenish back to gray head, terminating abruptly at the white “chin.”

We took a short stroll along the lake, vowing to return on another occasion to explore the other side of the park, which is tucked up against the ski hills. We climbed to a ridge and on the way back down to the parking lot had one final surprise—a blue-gray gnatcatcher!

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