For the Birds Radio Program: Summer magic: warblers

Original Air Date: July 14, 2003

All we need to do is open our windows to notice summer magic. (Date confirmed)

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From late May through mid-July, the north woods air is alive with birdsong. Sometimes I like to experience it as a single symphonic piece, but being a birder, I can’t help but notice the individual voices. Each recognized song makes me feel a lovely connection with the singer and its kind as I recall earlier encounters, each happy memory crowded out of my consciousness by new memories rushing in as I hear another, and yet another, song wafting through the fragrant, woody air.

Early one morning last month I drove through the Nicollet National Forest. Driving slowly along the narrow forest roads, the air seemed alive with warblers—Blackburnians and Black-throated Greens, Chestnut-sideds and Nashvilles, Black-and-whites and Parulas and Magnolias, with loud Ovenbird songs overpowering the production.

At one point I heard the sweet, sputtery notes of a Canada Warbler, so I stopped my car and got out to look at it. Canada Warblers are one of my favorites. They’re secretive, usually skulking in dense deciduous foliage, so they’re tricky to actually see. But I was in no hurry, so I patiently searched through every branch and made little “pshhh” sounds until it finally came out in the open.

Delightful as Canada Warblers are to hear, they’re even more delightful to see, with their dark bluish gray back, brilliant yellow underside marked with a shiny black necklace, and bright yellow eye markings called “spectacles.” Field guides always seem to show Canada Warblers from the side, but when they turn to directly face us, these eyes have a mesmerizing, cross-eyed earnestness that always makes me smile. This little guy sang several songs while in clear view, the sputtery notes seeming to come from so deep within that his whole body shook with each note. The energy and passion that such tiny birds put into song fill me with wonder.

But eventually my little Canada Warbler returned to the woods and I got back into my car. A little ways down the road I saw a group of chickadees fly across, so I stopped again. This was a family group, the fledglings’ feathers a bit rumpled and their tails just tiny stumps. One of the parents flew in with a bug and the babies all started fluttering their wings to beg. At that moment an Ovenbird called at close range and I turned around to see it eye to eye, in mid-song. Ovenbirds supposedly sing “teacher, teacher, teacher!” but their exuberance far exceeds that of typical students. This bird’s song was far louder than the Canada Warbler’s, but it didn’t seem to be working any harder to produce it. He sat on a branch and sang a dozen or so songs, and then flew into the woods, and I returned to my car.

The forest was filled with many such stops. It seemed an extraordinary morning. But really, it was just another summer day. Magic is all around us, if only we slow down, open our windows, and let the sounds flow in.