Warbler Wonderland

“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want – oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” – Mark Twain

Spring has always been an exciting time for this nature-loving girl. In California, the landscape greens, wildflowers bloom, carpeting hillsides and grasslands, and songbirds sing their sweet mating songs. It is my favorite time to be out and about, exploring and discovering. Last year’s wildflower blooms were epic, thanks to well-timed and plentiful rains after years of drought. This year, I turned my attention to another spring phenomenon – bird migration! And what better place to observe spring migration than the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in NW Ohio. So, I packed up in Greenwood, CA and drove east!

I first heard about Magee Marsh from my bird teacher, Sylvia Gallagher. I hung on most of her words, so when she stated that Magee Marsh was a must-see for any birder, this bucket-list item was quickly assigned a high ranking. Each year, more than 325 bird species travel from their wintering grounds in Central and South America to their breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada, along the Mississippi Flyway, and then make the return trip at the conclusion of the breeding season. These neotropical birds light up the newly green landscape as they return for spring, transforming the bird life of North America. And, many of these species consider Magee Marsh to be a prime stopover during spring migration.

The wood-warblers, in the family Parulidae, account for a large portion of the neotropical birds on their northbound journey. For example, this strikingly beautiful and glowing Prothonotary Warbler (seen from the Magee Boardwalk) weighs just half an ounce, but is an incredibly resilient traveler. A male tagged in 2013, as part of a research effort to better understand the migratory patterns of this declining species, wintered in northwest Colombia and then traveled to Baton Rouge, LA — in only three weeks! Over the course of 8 months, he traveled a minimum of 5,000 miles, through 7 different countries, and crossed the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico twice. So, if their brilliant colors and beautiful songs aren’t enough to inspire whimsy and admiration, well, then, their unparalleled travel feats should be!

This Prothonotary Warbler landed right by my head as I was watching an Eastern Screech Owl!

By May, many species of these insectivorous, energetic, bundles of yellow, gold, green, blue, cerulean, orange, and chestnut are singing their hearts out in woodlands across the northeast. Some species remain to breed, others reenergize and continue to journey farther north. Migrating warblers do the majority of their traveling at night, and a variety of factors influence where they touch down, most notably, weather. Magee Marsh, in particular, acts as a “migrant trap” in that its coastal woodlands offer an opportunity to refuel before the next daunting leg of their journey – the flight across Lake Erie. According to the Friends of Magee Marsh, warblers “pile up” on these forested beach ridges in large numbers due to their “reluctance to cross Lake Erie”.

My experience was nothing short of spectacular. I planned on staying for 3 days, and I stayed for 9. I explored several areas around NW Ohio, but made time for the Magee Marsh Boardwalk each and every day (I’ll have to look back at eBird to tally the total number of hours I spent there…I am confident it will be a high number!). Every walk was a different experience and yielded new birds, different views of birds, different bird behaviors, or some other novel moment. During most of my walks, the birds were foraging at eye-level making for unparalleled observations and incredible photo opportunities. Also, 9 days makes quite a difference in the timing of migration, especially with storms and changing wind patterns, and so I was afforded the opportunity to watch species composition shift during my time there. For example, Yellow-rumped Warblers were commonplace in my first few days but largely absent in my last few days while Magnolia Warblers and Bay-breasted Warblers increased in frequency over the course of my time there.

I have so many anecdotes (and photos!) I would like to share and I am simply not going to fit it into one post. So, I’ll start by sharing some of my favorite warbler encounters and will continue in a separate post (which will also include all of the other awesome birds: Yellow-billed Cuckoo!!! Red-headed Woodpecker, several species of Vireos, American Woodcock!, etc).

Chestnut-sided Warbler

I encountered a vagrant Chestnut-sided Warbler in California this past winter, but it may as well have been a different species than the males I observed in Ohio, in their strikingly patterned breeding plumage. Their appearance is certainly distinctive – no other warbler boasts the unique combination of a yellowish cap and black eye line, chestnut down the sides of a white breast. They are quite acrobatic as they move around the forest gleaning insects from the bottom of leaves. I found it fascinating to learn (from Audubon.org) that John James Audubon, in all of his wanderings around eastern North America, only saw this bird once. The brushy habitats that result from the cutting of primary growth forests is preferred by this species, and it is most likely to be observed in second-growth wood, thickets, and bouncing around on saplings rather than old-growth trees. These warblers winter in Central America in mixed-species foraging flocks and are known to return to the same precise location in subsequent years, rejoining the same flock.

Black-and-white Warblers are one of my favorites to watch – they are unique amongst warblers with regards to their feeding habits. They are affectionately called the “Pied Creeper” because they forage by creeping along tree trunks, probing bark for insects. They are well-adapted for this particular style of foraging – they possess slightly decurved bills, heavyset legs, and extra long hind claws that help them cling and move around a tree with impressive agility. These were not as abundant as some of the other warblers and I stopped each and every time I saw them…they are just so fun to watch “creeping”!

Black-and-white Warbler

Studer (1881) wrote about the Black-and-white Warbler, “He seldom perches on small twigs, but circumambulating the trunk and larger branches, in quest of ants and other insects, with admirable dexterity. He is evidently nearer related to Creepers than to Warblers.”

“Just another Black-throated Green”, overhead on the boardwalk. Ridiculous, I know! But these warblers were all over the place, foraging at eye level, and super abundant. And, they were singing up a storm, “zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee”, or, as Ben (1953) described it, “trees, trees, murmuring trees”.The majority of individuals of this species will be continuing north, as the majority breeds within the Boreal Forest.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Speaking of black throats, Black-throated Blue Warblers were another common sight along the boardwalk. The males and females of this species differ markedly, but both are striking. The male’s midnight-blue back contrasts with its sharp white belly and one can study this carefully as this warbler forages in the shrubby understory and lower canopy of forest. No warbler neck needed!

Black-throated Blue Warbler, male
Black-throated Blue Warbler, female (the white wing spot is distinctive)

Cape May Warblers are a personal favorite and, after this week, they’ve earned a spot in my lecture on pollination ecology – I’ll be revising my presentation before the fall semester! These warblers have a semitubular tongue and they sip nectar on their wintering grounds. Well, I caught quite a few nectaring in migration, and they seemed quite fond of the American Black Currant flowers. Look at all that pollen on his bill! Harlow (in Bent 1953) described the male Cape May Warbler as the “absolutely fearless…….tiger of the north woods in defending his territory” and will actively attack any birds in close proximity to a nest, up to the size of a Swainson’s Thrush!

Cape May Warbler, nectaring on American Black Currant

Last warbler for now, the least warbler-like of the warblers: the Palm Warbler! This species has a bigger belly than most warblers and an almost Pipit-like shape. It also has the odd (for warbler) habits of walking on the ground and pumping its tail up and down. In fact, that tail bobbing can help with identification when viewing this bird from a distance. Palm Warblers will continue to move northward to breed in Canada’s Boreal Forests. In fact, the Blackpoll Warbler (also shown below) is the only warbler that breeds farther north than Palm Warblers!

Palm Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

That’s all for now! More warblers to come (preview: Blue-winged, Bay-breasted, Magnolia, Nashville, Tennessee and Blackburnian Warblers, Northern Parula and American Redstart.…to name a few)!

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