Monday, June 16, 2008

Here's a Rarity!

I went down to beautiful Fairfield County last Sunday, hard on the edge of Hocking County and its renowned sandstone gorges. Our destination was a normally off-limits place, a preserve dominated by a massive escarpment of sandstone. This giant rock is fractured into "fat man's" squeezes; narrow fissures with narrow walls but very high ceilings, and the slopes below are littered with slump blocks the size of cars, if not buses.

Quite beautiful, and a geologist's fantasy land. But we were there for a bird.

The cool, north-facing slopes of this massif are choked with impenetrable tangles of Great Rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum. This, in not very distant West Virginia, is the habitat of one of the most coveted if not least showy of the eastern Wood Warblers. Mr. Swainson's bird. The Swainson's Warbler. Showy of song if not plumage, this skulker whistles from the rhododendron tangles in the highlands of Appalachia, and has excited many a birder thrilled more by its uncommoness than its plumage.

There have a been a few Swainson's that have summered here in Ohio, but I'd bet all were unmated males and none have been in great - or at least typical habitat for this warbler. I don't think we have any that breed in Ohio, and would consider it unlikely that they would turn up. But, if some promising habitat is known, it'd be foolish not to look.

We failed. But only on the Swainson's Warbler. The rhododendron was in near full bloom, and that spectacle was worth the climbing, as were the flowering Mountain Laurel and all of the other interesting critters and plants. And one of our participants let on about another really rare warbler that had been hanging out for a while in a not too distant part of Hocking County.

Excuse my less than National Geographic quality photos with this bird. It just wasn't possible to get up in his grill. Looks a bit like a chickadee, eh?

For those of you guessing Vermivora chrysoptera, Golden-winged Warbler, how right thou are. This is a good one. There are hardly if any left as breeders in Ohio. My hunch in this case, based on watching it and hearing the descriptions of those who have been observing it since it appeared a few weeks back, is that it is unmated. Probably just no females to be found in the area, as far removed as it is from the core centers of Golden-winged Warbler populations.

Golden-wingeds are real beauts. They sing a neat song, too: Bee-buzz-buzz-buzz, at least typically. This one was singing a classic Golden-winged song and the bird showed no signs of hybridization. They often cross with Blue-winged Warblers, and the pairing of pure parents of each species produces an interesting hybrid known as Brewster's Warbler. The pairing of a pure adult and a hybrid produces the even more exotic-looking Lawrence's Warbler. Generally speaking, at least.

Golden-winged Warbler habitat, a shrubby old field choked with Winged Sumac and other shrubs, and dotted with the occasional taller sapling. A great bird, and a nice substitute for Swainson's Warbler.

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