For the Birds Radio Program: Big Migration Day

Original Air Date: May 13, 2002

Laura had a splendid day birding Saturday.

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Spring migration is the most exciting time of year for birders, and the most wonderful days of spring migration are when warblers are on the move. Like Forrest Gump would have said, warbler migration is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Birders are always hopeful that they’ll witness something extraordinary. Decades ago, there were a lot of big warbler days, even in places far from main migration routes. When I was a little girl, I remember a huge flock of tiny, colorful birds that filled my maple tree one lovely spring day-I didn’t know they were warblers until I opened my first field guide on Christmas, at least 15 years later. I started birding in 1975, when there were still a lot of big migration days, even in places far from migration pathways.

My first spring, I was overwhelmed by big waves of warblers. I’d see one with bold white wingbars and a yellow underside with black streaks, and rifle through the field guide pages to finally find a match, and when I looked back up at the warbler, it was gone and one without wingbars was on the same branch. Or had I imagined the wingbars? It was utterly confusing. Little by little as I kept up at it I found I was noticing enough field marks quickly enough to identify more and more of them. That first spring I identified 5 species, and by fall I’d sorted out 13 species. In 1976 I brought my warbler list up to 30 and was getting quicker at taking in critical field marks and remembering which marks went with which species identifying warblers hadn’t taken superhuman powers at allĀ­ nothing more than patience and practice.

You just never know when a big warbler day is going to happen. On May 4 this year, when it was cold and windy, I watched at least a thousand warblers zip along the woods paralleling the Lake Superior shoreline in Port Wing, Wisconsin. Few of them sat still long enough to identify, but 90% of the ones that did, or made distinctive call notes, were Yellow-rumped Warblers. Yellow-rumps, nicknamed Butter-butts, are always the first warblers of the season, because their digestive system allows them to eat fruits and seeds. There were a bazillion Ruby-crowned Kinglets among the yellow-rumps, and a sprinkling of other warblers. I got good looks at a Northern Parula and a couple of Palm and Orange-crowned Warblers.

The weather stayed cool and murky all week. I read on the Internet about great warbler days in southern and central Wisconsin and Minnesota, and huge fallouts of warblers at Point Pelee, a famous migration spot in Ontario near Detroit, but was stuck indoors all week. Then on Saturday, May 11, I woke up to an Ovenbird singing in my own backyard, and figured the warblers HAD to be coming. That evening I headed back to my mother-in-law’s in Port Wing. It was drizzling and yucky and cold, but I figured it had to eventually clear up, and I might as well wake up on Mother’s Day to warblers.

I woke up to more drizzle and a mere 40 degrees. An ovenbird was singing at her place, a Northern Waterthrush was walking on the ground under her big spruce trees, here and there I heard a Yellow-rump on its territory, and at the end of her driveway I found a gorgeous Magnolia Warbler. Magnolia Warblers are the color of licorice and lemon drops and coconut, with a little slate blue thrown in to serve as the candy dish. Seeing one makes me rejoice to be on this blue and green planet with such a rich spectrum of sweet delights.

That one lovely warbler made me hungry for more, but in the immediate vicinity of my mother-in-law’s place, about a mile from Lake Superior, there weren’t any others. And I didn’t hear any on territory closer to the lake, either. But on Quarry Shores Road and Big Pete Road, every chickadee flock had scores of warblers hanging out with it. These warblers were searching for insects, and I got splendid looks at Black-throated Greens, Cape Mays, Black-and-whites, Nashvilles-all in all I ended the day with 11 species.

Soon warblers will materialize in every nook and cranny of the north woods, and we’ll wake to their songs every day until July. But for the next few weeks, new delights will unfold every day. As I said, warbler migration is like a box of chocolates-you never know what you’re going to get. And to enjoy it, all you have to do is open the box and dig in.