Monday, May 28, 2012

Warblers!

Everyone loves a warbler. These colorful sprites are, to many, the avian highlight of spring. I am not impervious to their charms, and one of the great things about visiting northern Michigan's Presque Isle County is the numbers and diversity of warblers. During the nine days I was there, my groups and I tallied 25 species, nearly all of them breeders.

Following are a few shots that I managed to click off, all with my new Nikon Coolpix P5100. When leading groups or otherwise engaged, I like having a higher end "bridge" point and shoot around my neck. Toting the SLR and its accouterments just isn't practical in such situations. The P5100, by the way, is AWESOME! It has an incredible 42x zoom that actually holds up well at its higher ranges, and the camera does well with macro, landscapes, and video. Hard to beat if you're looking for a versatile non-SLR camera (no connections with Nikon, me!).

An adult American Redstart, in a rare moment of repose. These animals are feathered bulls in leafy china shops, engaging in a shock and awe foraging strategy. They rage through the vegetation, flicking and fanning those brilliant orange wing and tail spots, literally spooking the insects from the foliage. Fleeing bugs are snatched in flight, and the redstart is aided in aerial captures by stiff rictal bristles that line its mouth, thus effectively increasing the bird's gape.

Perhaps the most common breeding warbler in Presque Isle County is the Nashville Warbler. This species is quite facultative - a generalist - in its habitat requirements. They can be found in nearly every forest type, in most successional stages of woods.

I would be loathe to cast a vote for the most beautiful warbler, but if my hand was forced my ballot might go to the Chestnut-sided Warbler. This species prefers young scrubby growth, such as shrubby thickets, woodland margins, and regenerating clearcuts. It is quite common in Presque Isle County.

The classic Chestnut-sided Warbler song ends with an emphatic "swee-swee-CHU!" Such typical songs are easily recognized, but these warblers also deliver soft jumbled whisper songs that can be impossible to separate from alternate Yellow Warbler songs.

Peeking coyly from a tuft of white pine needles is a truly shocking bird, the male Blackburnian Warbler. Their songs are very high in pitch, and I think that certain renditions travel so high up the scale that even the best of ears cannot hear the entire melody.

A Mourning Warbler, always a crowd-pleaser. They aren't especially common, and are adept at skulking in dense cover. Their quick husky songs can easily be lost among the chorus of neighboring singers, but song is the best way to find them. I had heard this bird some ways off, and was able to array the entire group in a good viewing spot. We eventually managed good looks, and this bird became nearly everyone's life Mourning Warbler.

One of my favorites of the Presque Isle breeding warblers is the Golden-winged Warbler. They aren't especially early returnees, and males are still showing up on territory while I am up there. The male resembles a chickadee with a yellow cap and gold ingot stamped on its wings. This species is closely related to the more southerly Blue-winged Warbler, and hybrids are frequent. When I hear a Golden-winged singing its buzzy ZEE zee-zee-zee or some variation thereof, I always try and run down the singer. Once, a hybrid Brewster's Warbler popped out of the thicket, and I'm sure the hybrids are not all that rare up there. Note how this bird has a yellowish wash below its bib - normal variation or evidence of backcrossing?

Black-throated Green Warblers are quite common, and their breezy zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee songs are simple to learn. If the singer is announcing its territorial boundaries to rivals, it will sing a more aggressive ZEE-ZEE-ZOO-ZOO-ZEE version.

We had an interesting experience with this bird. It was singing and foraging near our group, allowing for great looks and we were enjoying the opportunity to admire the bird at close range. Suddenly it came down low into the boughs of a spruce - 15 feet from the group - and settled in for a nap. For at least five minutes it remained stone still, and shuttered its eyes. When nap time was done, it shook itself awake and resumed activities.

Resplendent in its zebralike finery, a male Black-and-white Warbler poses for the camera. While not colorful, these warblers have a strikingly beautiful pattern, and I notice that they always generate enthusiastic receptions from observers when seen well. The male's high-pitched wispy song is often likened to the sound of a rotating wheel in need of grease: WEET-see, WEET-see,WEET-see.

During this expedition, I "discovered" a massive stand of elfin jack pine forest that was new to me. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manage extensive areas of jack pine to perpetuate habitat for the Kirtland's Warbler. These trees are only about seven years old, and the stand seemingly had a full complement of warblers. This was probably only the second year that warblers occupied the stand. By 20 years of age, the trees are too mature and the Kirtland's Warblers' abandon the habitat - thus, the need for ongoing large-scale jack pine management.

Although sometimes termed jack pine "barrens", these forests are anything but stark. The botanical diversity in the herbaceous layer is great, and includes many interesting plants. The plant diversity, in turn, spawns scores of insects, which become bird food. Other avian species that share the Kirtland's jack pine habitat include Clay-colored and Vesper sparrows; Hermit Thrush; Upland Sandpiper; Nashville Warbler; Brown Thrasher; and others. I was pleased to find a territorial Palm Warbler in the habitat in the photo above. This species is expanding its range into stunted jack pine forests in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

On my last day in Michigan, after everyone else had left, I made a final stop to spend time in the jack pines. I had figured out the pattern and territorial boundaries of one particular Kirtland's Warbler, and quietly lay on a soft bed of Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) in his turf. As the bird made its rounds, it of course noticed me prostrate on the ground. Singing all the while, it hopped to the base of a nearby jack pine and to within three feet of your narrator. At one point, I was certain that the bird would hop on my leg. Its rich boisterous song is LOUD indeed when delivered a few feet from one's ear! After concluding I was rather boring, apparently, the Kirtland's Warbler continued on its rounds and I slunk off, richer for the experience even if the bird wasn't.

This is not a crowd gathered for an outdoors performance by the Rolling Stones - it is the mob scene that formed following the discovery of a migrant Kirtland's Warbler at Ohio's Magee Marsh Wildlife Area a week or so ago. I've seen this photo several places, and apologize for not being sure of who the photographer is, although I think it may be Gunnar Engblom. Hopefully Gunnar - or whoever took it - will not mind me sharing it here.

There are only 3,600 or so Kirtland's Warblers on earth, and their charisma is evident by this photo. It's as if the bird was a powerful magnet and all of these people had iron in their binoculars. In spite of the horde, the Kirtland's Warbler probably wasn't intimidated in the least, as they are by nature tame and confiding. I'm sure many birders got their life Kirtland's Warbler here, and I'm glad for that.

Still, I'd much rather savor the birds in the lonely jack pines, with no one else around.

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8 comments:

jaredmizanin said...

Awesome. I myself find warblers to be the highlight of not only spring migration, but all of nature's marvels in the month of May. I especially like the Golden-winged...among my favorite warblers.

Buckeyeherper said...

I saw my first few kirtlands up in the jack pines last year around this time, and will always cherish that. I couldn't imagine a group like that photo... Ahh pure Michigan.

Jason

Kelly said...

...the NettieBay trip looks fantastic!

Mary Ann said...

I love your description of the Redstart!! And the Chestnut Sided; definitely my favorite Warbler. Great post. I'm going to read it again some time in January when I need a boost. :)

Heather said...

Wow, your solo encounter with the Kirtland's must have been incredible. I'm very impressed with this new Nikon of yours, by the way. My SLR is on its way out, and I might be in the market for this "bridge" version.

Unknown said...

My first thought at the sight of the Golden-winged Warbler photo, was "clear yellow wash on the chest, probably some backcrossing going on" Great post. love those warblers...

B said...

A trip I wish I'd made myself. Thanks very much for taking us along.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for all of your comments, everyone. Who doesn't like the warblers, and I hope to have much more to say on this subject before long!