For the Birds Radio Program: Warblers

Original Air Date: July 3, 1992

The jewels of the forest nest in the north woods, and can be found here all summer. 3:53 (Date verified)

Audio missing


Every summer, during warbler breeding time, I think about how rich we are to live in the Northland. Wood warblers migrate through most of the eastern United States in spring and fall, so others may enjoy them for a spell, but these exquisite avian jewels are merely passing through most places on their way to our own northern forests. Our woods are the right place to raise warbler babies. The rich insect life and cool temperatures are just what growing nestlings need.

Last week I taught an elderhostel course on the north arm of Burntside Lake near Ely, where warblers are as common as House Sparrows in the Twin Cities. It takes a lot more patience to see a warbler than a House Sparrow—the thick foliage of summer trees hides even the gaudiest Blackburnian Warbler from view unless you carefully search the treetops for it—but even a glimpse is well worth the effort. The dainty Blackburnian’s head and breast are blazing orange, with a bold black triangle over the eye and big white patches on its black wings. The word “blackburnian” seems singularly appropriate for this birds intense black and flaming orange plumage, but actually it was named for Anna Blackburn, an Englishwoman who supported early American ornithological expeditions. The word “blackburnian” isn’t currently in the dictionary. I wrote to David Weeks, the Senior Editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, pointing out this omission, and he promised to consider adding it to future editions. Until then, if you want to see a Blackburnian Warbler, you’ll have to look for it up among the trees.

Some warblers are easier to see than the Blackburnian. The beautiful little Magnolia Warbler may flit about like an overactive toddler, but it stays pretty much at eye level, and occasionally even stops on a bare branch to warble a few sweet ditties before chasing a bug back into the foliage. While it’s sitting there, you can enjoy its gorgeous bright yellow underside, boldly streaked with shiny black, and its striking black face mask. Even as it takes off, the Magnolia is a delightful vision. In flight it flares out its tail, displaying to perfection big white tail patches. Five hundred Magnolia Warblers weigh about the same as a ten-pound sack of potatoes, but how much more nourishing to the soul is a single one of these masterpieces!

The Black-and-white Warbler may lack the colors of other members of its family, but the clean juxtaposition of ebony and ivory make its plumage second to none. Black-and-whites fill a forest niche rather like the Brown Creeper and White-breasted Nuthatch, and spend a great deal of time on the trunk and large branches of trees, often at eye level. You may spend several minutes tracking a singing male down, but once you find him you can often follow his movements for a long time.

One of the Northland’s most common and most elusive summer birds is the Mourning Warbler. Last week my six-year-old Tommy and I spent about 45 minutes searching for one singing male who managed to elude Tommy’s Fisher-Price binoculars the whole time. I had translated its song for Tommy as cheese cheese cheese, for me, for me. Tommy may not have gotten his hoped-for lifer, but he sure recognizes its song now. On our drive home from Ely, he pointed out seven different “cheese cheese” birds that he heard singing through the open car window. Even without seeing them, warblers can enrich life in the northwoods like no other creatures.