Friday, May 6, 2011

Tiny birds are driving me mad

Ah, what could be nicer than spring? The migrants are coming through, including all the lovely little warblers, the flowers are blooming, the trees are opening into a profusion of greenery. Sometimes it's even warm and sunny! Who on earth could complain about this?

Only someone truly neurotic.... Someone obsessed with warblers, perhaps?

Compared to years past, I'm doing pretty good. Despite an excess of enthusiasm, I don't really consider myself that good a birder. Although I was a casual birder since 2004 (with a couple of awesome trips to Texas thrown in), I only got really serious about this pursuit (it has gone way beyond a hobby) a couple of years ago, and my skills have, I hope, been increasing steadily since then.

Warblers are kind of like the jewels on the birding crown, the highlight of the year. They only come through twice a year, during spring and fall migration, and they only look their best in the there's like a three week window to see them in their finery. The first thing to know about warblers is: they are beautiful. Mostly they come in patterns of black and yellow, but some are also blue, orange or red.

They are also tiny, unpredictable, very fast, and move around continuously, usually as high up in the trees as they can get, thus making themselves a challenge to spot.

This year so far I've seen: yellow, yellow-rumped, Blackburnian, magnolia, black-throated green, palm, chestnut-sided, orange-crowned, blue-winged (too briefly!), black and white, Nashville, Tennessee and Cape May. Also common yellowthroats...for some reason I tend to forget that they are warblers!

This is a great round-up, as the chestnut-sided is especially lovely, and the Blackburnian (oh, the Blackburnian!) and the Cape May I've both only seen once previously. This morning, in fact, on my break at work, I saw my third Blackburnian ever...surely one of the most beautiful birds.

Part of the difference is that I've learned the trick to getting into the entrance to the Work Place Pond in the morning, so I've seen a lot of good stuff before work. Also, last fall I bought a small and cheap pair of binoculars to take to work with me, which, though they are a little frustrating compared to my "real" binoculars (too expensive to haul to work), help me to see the birds on my breaks.

If only this could be enough! But on Wednesday, when I saw the Cape May warbler with help of some fellow birders (to be honest, they totally pointed it out to me...I probably would have walked right by), one of said birders asked, "Did you get your Blackburnian at Angler's?"

I admitted that I had, and mentioned a few other choice birds I'd seen there.

Then he asked, "Did you see the hooded?"

What? There was a HOODED WARBLER there too? According to ebird, not only a hooded, but also black-throated blue and prairie, all seen at my Work Place Pond! And have I seen them there? NO! Just that quickly, birding triumph turns bitter... No matter how beautiful the Blackburnian, he would have been even better in the company of those others!

In fact, my fellow birder mentioned how worrying about the List (all the birds seen...and that parallel, unlisted List of all those others have seen and you haven't!) can actually start to be stressful. Yes, it can! No one can see everything.... He mentioned that he still "needs" a marsh wren, and I did see Angler's.

And it gets worse! This afternoon I went to Parklands, hoping for warblers galore or at the very least an easy-peasy year bird kingbird (yes, I did get that). I tramped around through shrubs and grasses, peering high into the trees, and saw many lovely birds: a male rose-breasted grosbeak. Three eastern towhees. A pair of wood ducks on the Mackinaw. Warblers: black-throated green, yellow-rumped, Nashville, and black and white. A great horned owl. A gorgeous flock of goldfinches.

And, a mystery warbler. It flew from a shrub to a tree, giving me about thirty seconds to look (if that) before retreating into the foliage. It was all gray on top, yellow below, with some black streaks along its flanks. I hadn't brought a field guide with me, but I wondered if it might be a prairie warbler, which would be a life bird, since I remembered they were yellow and streaky.

Back in the car a couple of hours later, I flipped through my new Stokes' guide, and decided it was not a prairie warbler. That warbler is more yellow on top, while mine was definitely gray. Also, the prairie has some distinctive markings on its face, which mine did not have. Canada, then? I turned to that page...nope, as I recalled, the Canada warbler's streaks form a sort of "necklace" pattern, and my warbler definitely had the streaks running along its FLANKS!

I kept paging through, and there it was. Yes, the perfect match! Gray above, yellow below, black streaks on flanks...the KIRTLAND'S WARBLER! Like, only the rarest warbler in the country! And I saw one?!?!

Did I? Didn't I? Is it possible? Yes...they migrate from the Caribbean to Michigan, so seeing one in Illinois on its way through, totally possible. Is it likely? Ummm...they're really, really rare! So did I see one?

Personally, I think so. But unless someone else in the county goes there first, I'm not going to "ebird" it. I saw it so briefly, with no proof at all, that I just can't be sure. No one wants to bloat up one's life list with spurious sightings, what Sunwiggy and I call the List of Lies. Let alone get people excited about something that may be a mistake...or even worse, ruin one's name in the birding community forever. No one wants to be the Birder Who Cried Rare Warbler.

Oh, this season will drive me mad. There's at least another good warbler week ahead, so here's hoping I find at least another half dozen species. Someday I'll go up to Michigan to find a bona fide Kirtland's. In the might have just might have been....

ADDENDUM: Not a Kirtland's, definitely no! I saw another one this morning and had a much better look...but as to what species it was, and how I figured it out, I will leave that for my next post!


  1. Oh, Leigh, how exciting! It COULD have been a Kirkland's warbler. I'd be too cautious to ebird it, too! I can hardly wait for the warbler wave to reach the UP. We've got the waterfowl, the sparrows, and the hawks, but only the yellowrump warbler so far. Hope I see a Blackburnian! You and your fellow birder have it right, as well, about being careful not to let listmania, and list jealousy (guilty!) ruin the whole experience. As an elderly birder up here reminded me, you do it because it's fun! Mom

  2. Alas, not a Kirtland's, as I put in my addendum. I'm still getting a cool round-up of warblers, though. And I'm sure they're heading North!