I will always remember this May as the month the warblers came. My Facebook feed is full of sightings. My friends are texting me from the field, wanting to share their excitement. The rare-bird lists are overflowing. It seems that warblers are everywhere.
Living along the Front Range of Colorado, we don’t normally experience quite the same seasonal torrent of these Neotropical migrant as states east of the plains. We can expect to see some species—Yellow, Wilson’s, Common Yellowthroat, perhaps an Orange-crowned, Virginia’s, or Yellow-breasted Chat, and it’s a rare summer field trip that doesn’t turn up plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers, mostly the yellow-throated Audubon’s subspecies. (The above photo is the white-throated Myrtle’s subspecies, showing off his yellow rump.) We’re too far east (or not desert-y enough) for truly western birds—Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, Hermit, Grace’s, or MacGillivray’s.
While say I’d like to add these normally-distant birds to my life list without having to travel, I’ve secretly been glad they don’t live here. They all look so similar that I’m sure I would be constantly frustrated. I’m terrible at birding by ear, and often that’s the only way to ID that bird flitting around in the foliage. Besides, my neck hurts enough without staring at treetops for hours at a time. Well, this year we’ve gotten a taste of what we’ve been missing.
You may have noticed that birds don’t read the field guides. From time to time, strays from other parts of the country (or the world) show up in our area. In the past year we’ve hosted species such as a Flame-colored Tanager (visiting from Latin America), an American Woodcock (from the eastern U.S.), a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (from the southeast) and a Pomarine Jaegar (a pelagic species), among others.
And then there are the warblers. We usually get a few rarities. Over the years I’ve seen a Black-throated Blue and a Pine Warbler (left)—both eastern species—at a local park. Other birders have seen more species. But this year it seems that every warbler on the continent has decided to pass through Colorado.
The snowstorm and subfreezing temperatures around Mother’s Day grounded thousands of migrating birds—a major fallout. Then the weather warmed and everyone rushed outside—and the reports started flooding in. Magnolia Warbler. Red-faced Warbler. Northern Waterthrush. Ovenbird. Blackpoll Warbler. Prothonotary Warbler. Tennessee Warbler. Kentucky Warbler. Prairie Warbler. Bay-breasted Warbler. Townsend’s Warbler. And the list goes on and on. It’s incredible!
I finally got in on the action during the spring bird count at a local county park and nature center. One of the first birds we saw as we started out was a Townsend’s Warbler, and it was quickly followed by something else. At first we thought it was another Townsend’s, or perhaps the same one, but then we got a better look. “Black-throated Green!” our leader called out. “Lifer!” I answered, and I quickly focused my camera and squeezed off a few shots. Another birder in our group also claimed it as a new bird, and the two of us did our lifer dances, giving each other high-fives with big smiles on our faces.
We followed the bird as it moved though the cottonwoods bordering a small stream in what is otherwise an arid area. It ignored us, feeding on whatever insects it could find among the leaves. I managed a few more photographs (sorely missing my longer lens, which is out being repaired). We were finally distracted by a singing Warbling Vireo, and the Black-throated Green flew on upstream.
A few moments later, I heard, “Is that a Creeper?” As we got a better look at the bird scurrying around the trunk of a large tree, we realized that no, it wasn’t a Brown Creeper—it was a Black-and-White Warbler! That’s one warbler I have no problem identifying. Its black-and-white stripes are unique, plus the creeper-type behavior easily distinguishes it from other similarly-sized birds.
I was sad that the trail turned away from the stream to head up a dry hillside. Warblers gave way to Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. There were what seemed like hundreds of Spotted Towhees (although our official tally was closer to 40), each singing loudly from the top of a bush to claim its patch of territory.
Later that day more warbler species were sighted at another nearby park. Guess where I’m heading tomorrow?