For the Birds Radio Program: Spring Warbler Walks

Original Air Date: May 14, 2005 (estimated date)

Why do people wake up early to go on warbler walks?

Audio missing


It’s about 6:25 in the morning as cars start turning into the parking lot just west of the TappaKeg Inn on West Grand Avenue, and a small band of people, men and women, anywhere from college aged through their 70s or 80s, gather. In another situation, these people might appear to have little in common, but here they are instantly identifiable by the pair of binoculars each sports around the neck. They are here for a Tuesday morning May Warbler Walk. The same scene replays at Park Point on Thursday mornings.

I’m sort of the leader, though when a dozen or twenty or thirty pairs of eyes are searching sky and trees and shrubs and water, anyone in the group may be the one who spots a given bird. When the walks began during the last week of April, birds were few and far between, and with no foliage blocking the way, it was rather easy for every person in the group to see the same bird at the same time. Some of the birds even sat or swam in the same spot long enough for each person to see it through a spotting scope. Of course, sometimes when most members of the group were studying a flock of ducks or a singing thrasher, someone would be distracted by something else—as “leader,” I’d have to make a quick check and decide whether to move the scope onto something else or let everyone watch the first bird first. If a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a bird in the spotting scope is worth three or four birds flitting about.

This year’s migration was slow moving, and by the end of the third week, we were still all able to see the same birds at the same time, though it was getting more difficult. Now when a small flock of kinglets and warblers flitted through bushes, one person might be puzzled when looking straight at a Palm Warbler, noting the rusty cap, pale underside and yellow undertail feathers, to hear someone else call out “Yellow Warbler!” Even though they were both looking at the same flock, they were focused on different birds within it, and before either could explain precisely where their bird was, it had flitted to a different branch, within the view of a different pair of binoculars.

That’s the problem when warbler migration kicks in during the final weeks of May. I heard a story once about a many showing his wife a tiny black and bright orange bird, and explaining to her why it was an American Redstart and not a Baltimore Oriole. She studied the bird in her binoculars with a skeptical look, and kept saying, “But it looks so BIG. It sure looks like an oriole to me, as he patronizingly said, “Inexperienced people often get mixed up when looking at birds through binoculars. Trust me—it’s a redstart.” They went back and forth for a good five minutes before he realized they were looking at different birds in the same tree, and that she was, indeed, looking at an oriole as he studied a redstart. This kind of difficulty replays increasingly as we encounter more and more mixed flocks at the height of migration. A single tree might hold half a dozen species of warblers, along with a catbird, oriole, tanager, and a few flycatchers and kinglets. How can 25 people possibly all stay focused on the same bird?

So if it can be just as confusing birding with a group instead of by yourself, why do people bother waking up early and going on these walks? Partly because it is gratifying to find kindred spirits who don’t mind being seen in public with binoculars who share the same enthusiasm for birds, whose eyes light up with pleasure to pick out the tiny bird flitting through the branches. What separates a birdwatcher from the many people who enjoy seeing and hearing birds is the need to recognize each and every one—to be able to separate the song of a robin from that of a tanager and an oriole, to know a Mourning Warbler from a Connecticut Warbler, and to be incapable of seeing a seagull—suddenly every gull has a name—Herring, Ring-billed, Bonaparte’s—and an inner restlessness demands that you look at the bill and feet and plumage subtleties to be certain which one THAT gull is.

But the skills necessary to tease out each identification take time and practice, and can often be acquired more quickly and easily with others. Despite the occasional frustration of getting the others to see the bird you’re looking straight out at, there are many opportunities to get identification tips and to get instant feedback on your own identifications from people who may have had more experience with that species. Some people showed up for just about every warbler walk, whether the temperature was in the 30s with a fierce wind off the lake and snowflakes swirling or it was sunny and balmy. Some just couldn’t pull themselves out of bed when skies were threatening and the wind shook their windows. Fortunately, bird walks are informal affairs, and whether the group was small or large, everyone was happy to be starting the day sharing the joys of nature in good company.