For the Birds Radio Program: Wintering Cape May Warbler

Original Air Date: Feb. 4, 2000

For the first time ever, a Cape May Warbler turned up on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count, and stuck around until January.

Duration: 3′29″


This winter, from early December until well into January, a Cape May Warbler visited a feeder along the North Shore of Lake Superior, not disappearing until a bad cold snap in late January. This was the first Cape May Warbler ever recorded on a Duluth Christmas Bird Count, and possibly the only one ever seen on a Minnesota Christmas Bird Count.

The Cape May Warbler is one of the most inappropriately named of all birds. A bird collector named George Ord shot and killed a migrating male in a maple swamp in Cape May County, New Jersey, in May 1811. The famous ornithologist Alexander Wilson named the species for the place where it was shot, but Wilson never saw a live Cape May Warbler, and none was seen again in Cape May until 109 years later, when an ornithologist named Dr. Stone spotted another migrant on September 4, 1920. Modern birders, who spend an enormous amount of time searching for migrants on Cape May, see them each year, but they are few and far between at that great migration trap.

Not that Cape May Warblers are particularly rare—but during migration they tend to concentrate west of the Appalachian Mountains en route to the Gulf Coast. They winter almost exclusively in the West Indies, where they eat fruit, nectar, and insects. In spring as they migrate toward the boreal forest, they spend a lot of time at fresh sapsucker holes, and are the warbler most likely to visit oranges, jelly, and hummingbird feeders. They’ve done considerable damage to vineyards in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia on migration—they puncture a great many of the grapes to sip their juice. But they become entirely beneficial to human interests once they reach the northern spruce forests, where they specialize on eating spruce budworms.

During winter, Cape May Warblers often establish a feeding territory, and even on migration they will defend temporary feeding territories. It’s a common sight during spring to watch them chasing off the sapsucker that drilled the holes they feed from—rather like biting the hand that feeds them. The North Shore gentleman who had the Cape May Warbler visiting his feeder told me the little bird chased off all the other birds that came to the suet feeder—they could only get in when the warbler was gone.

When I went up the shore to see the warbler on January 16, it seemed healthy enough, but we had a stretch of several below zero days, and the little bird was last seen two days later. I felt really sad that this feisty 1/3-ounce little sprite probably didn’t make it, but do take some hope from the fact that a Cape May Warbler turned up near Kansas City several days later. There are a lot of Cape May Warblers in the world, but there was something wonderfully special, albeit foolish, about the one who tried to be the first ever to survive a Minnesota winter.