You mean THAT’S gotta fit in HERE?

You may remember my teaser photo of this Great Blue Heron eating a fish a couple weeks ago, where I showed you the close-up view of the fish’s eye as it entered the mouth of the heron. This one:

Great Blue Heron with big fish in mouth - part of series w sig

Well here’s a series of pics showing the process of catching the fish and managing to get it down the throat. I’m always amazed at how deftly they manage to handle a slippery fish with no hands. Enjoy! (I’m making some assumptions about behavior here, so keep that in mind as you read my notes.)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (1)

So he grabs the fish and pulls it out of the water, immediately turning to the shore so it won’t be able to swim away if he drops it. (Click on any picture to see it larger, and I apologize that these pics aren’t very sharp — I had to crop them all.)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (9)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (13)

It’s still alive at this point, so I think he’s laying it down so he can deliver the killing blow.

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (17)

Yep, that ought to do it. But, hmm, now it’s got dirt all over it. What to do, what to do?

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (22)

Oh, I know…I’ll wash it off. (It could also be that he needs it to be wet to facilitate swallowing. I’m not sure how important it is to “wash” it.)

Dipping it back in the water

Dipping it back in the water

Getting it turned around...

Getting it turned around…

Ok, getting close...

Ok, getting close…

Oh yeah, here we go...

Oh yeah, here we go…

Going down the hatch

Going down the hatch

I always think it’s so cool how you can see the outline of the entire fish in the heron’s throat! I don’t know much about fish, but I think this might be a white bass…I looked in my new Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest and that was the closest match I could find there, based on the broken stripes on its sides and the shape of the fins.

Going down the hatch

Going down the hatch

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (59)

I learned something really interesting about the Great Blue Heron today. Not only do they eat fish, but also sometimes amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. And, here’s the cool part: They expel pellets of indigestible mammal hair, just like owls do! Did you know that? Apparently they can digest the bones, unlike owls, who expel bones in their pellets along with hair. I only learned a couple years ago that these pellets are expelled through the mouth rather than the other end of the body. I guess I never really thought about it much, until the day I saw a captive Northern Saw-whet Owl regurgitate a pellet right in front of me at an Audubon event. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (66)

Fish? What fish?

Fish? What fish?

Posted in Birds | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Intimacy in the Parking Lot

Killdeer in gravel parking lot

Killdeer in gravel parking lot

I got home yesterday afternoon and am probably going to need a couple days to recuperate from all the excitement at the Biggest Week in American Birding. This year’s festival was the best yet, and I have lots of photos to share with you all. But for today I just have a sequence from an intimate moment in the lives of two Killdeer.

Near Magee Marsh, there’s an ice cream shop with a big gravel parking lot in which Killdeer often dig their little “rock nests.” Early in the week I had a great time watching some recently-hatched babies running around the edges of this lot under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Little puffballs -- Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!

Little puffballs — Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!

Unfortunately, nesting in parking lots has its hazards, and I saw one of the parents of this brood get run over by a car just a few minutes after this photo was taken. It brought me to tears. These birds aren’t always noticeable, and I imagine many of them lose their lives like this. I think all four of the babies ran to safety though. I didn’t see them anywhere in the area in the days following that, so have convinced myself they’re okay with the remaining  parent.

My last day in Ohio was really hot, so I stopped back over there to get an ice cream cone. As I sat in my car eating it, I noticed two adult Killdeer sitting on the edge of the lot, about two feet apart. Occasionally one of them, presumably the female, got up and worked on a little indentation she was forming in the gravel. She would pull a rock to the side and then squat down in it and wiggle around, using her body to shape it better.

Using her body to shape the nest.

Using her body to shape the nest, or maybe also trying to attract the male?

After watching them for a few minutes and seeing them settle down again, I laid my car seat back and closed my eyes for a short nap. But a short time later I heard them making some agitated noises, so sat up and got to see this:

Hmm, what's going on here? Need a closer look....

Hmm, what’s going on here? Need a closer look….

Balancing act, trying to find the right position…

Killdeer mating sequence 4

Ah, I think they’ve got it now…

Killdeer mating sequence 6

Killdeer mating sequence 7

And the slightly-ungraceful dismount:

Killdeer mating sequence dismount

Nobody saw that, right?

Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.

Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.

So if all goes well there will be more little puffballs running around that parking lot soon! Next time I plan to show you the rest of the photo series of that Great Blue Heron eating a fish (see the preview in my previous post). And, of course, there will be warbler photos…stay tuned!

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Birds, Nesting | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid

Great Blue Heron with big fish in mouth - part of series w sig
I’m seeing lots of amazing things at the Biggest Week in American Birding, but can only show you this for now. I took a series of photos of this Great Blue Heron as he caught and ate a huge fish. I’ll post the entire series later, but thought this particular shot was so interesting because of the proximity of the eyes of both predator and prey.

Three days into the festival and seven more to go. It’s already exhausting, but it will all be over far too soon!

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

I’ve Got Swamp Fever

Metzger Marsh

Metzger Marsh

In the early 1800s, a large part of northwestern Ohio was an impenetrable swamp, inhabited only by a small number of Indians and a few hardy settlers. Somewhere along the way this 12-county area became known as the Great Black Swamp, known for its mosquitoes and a dreaded summertime disease called swamp fever. By mid-century it had mostly been drained and turned into farmland though, and all that remains of it now are the marshes of Lucas and Ottawa counties: Magee Marsh, Metzger Marsh, and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

If the Great Black Swamp was still in existence today it probably would be a nature preserve and wildlife refuge similar to the Everglades in Florida. (– Jim Mollenkopf, in his book The Great Black Swamp)

Yellow Warbler at Magee Marsh on May 2, 2015

Yellow Warbler at Magee Marsh on May 2, 2015

Thankfully, I’ve got the 21st century form of swamp fever. The primary symptom is an insatiable desire to roam the marshes, woodlands, and meadows, watching hundreds of species of birds migrating through. The fever also causes a person to become blinded to virtually everything else for weeks at a time: household chores are ignored, as are friends and family–unless those friends and family are also afflicted with the fever. Everyone knows the fever is much more fun when you can share it with others.

Those who suffer from the modern version of swamp fever recognize fellow sufferers by their attire, which looks like this:

My t-shirts for the 2015 Biggest Week in American Birding!

My t-shirts for the 2015 Biggest Week in American Birding!

I’m actually deliriously happy to have this particular affliction. I just wish it could last a while longer.

Great Egret hunting in the marsh

Great Egret hunting in the marsh

The photos shared here were taken in the marshes of northwest Ohio in the past couple of weeks. On Friday I’ll be heading back down there for 10 glorious days in the “Warbler Capital of the World.” I’ll be doing some volunteer work for the Biggest Week in American Birding, catching up with friends from across the country, and trying to see as many beautiful birds as I can in this all-too-brief period of time.

All aboard the BSBO birding express!

All aboard the BSBO birding express!

Did you notice my cute little BSBO hat? (BSBO stands for Black Swamp Bird Observatory — aren’t you glad you know where their name came from now?) I usually hate wearing hats, so I was thrilled to find this new style in their gift shop yesterday. I think it looks like a conductor’s hat instead of a baseball cap. And within 15 minutes of putting it on, a total stranger yelled across the parking lot at Magee Marsh to tell me he liked my hat…proof that it’s a keeper.

Double-crested Cormorant at Magee Marsh

Double-crested Cormorant at Magee Marsh

Palm Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Palm Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Prothonotary Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Prothonotary Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

John Burroughs sign at Magee Marsh (2)

Yes, this.

I hope you enjoyed these photos, and I also hope I’ll have many more to share with you very soon. Even if you’re not lucky enough to live near the Great Black Swamp, make sure you still keep your eyes peeled in your neighborhood–you never know who might use your yard as a migration rest stop!

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Bird Migration | Tagged | 13 Comments

The Trickle Before the Flood

Black-throated Green Warbler (from last year)

Black-throated Green Warbler (from last year)

Well, the first few warbler species have started showing up in southeast Michigan this month. So far we have Yellow-rumped, Pine, Black-throated Green, Palm, Yellow, and Yellow-throated Warblers, as well as Common Yellowthroats. That might look like a lot for mid-April, but these species aren’t here in large numbers yet, just a few here and there. But the rest of them are definitely on their way. Soon, my pretties, very soon!

Reading all the reports of warblers on the various online birding groups has motivated me to get busy reviewing warbler songs using the Larkwire game. Every year I hope to improve my ability to identify the birds by their songs. I haven’t been too successful with it though. I think that’s because they’re only around for a few weeks each year and my brain just can’t seem to retain what I learn in my brief pre-migration cram sessions. And there are just so many species to learn–we have something like 40 warbler species that migrate through the eastern half of the country.

Warbler Guide book cover for websiteThis year I’m adding another tool to my arsenal: I’m using the book “The Warbler Guide,” which uses sonogram images of warbler songs to–supposedly–make it easier to distinguish the confusingly-similar songs. I’m especially eager to experiment with the techniques in this book since I’m going to be birding with the authors during The Biggest Week in American Birding. Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle are leading two of the “Birding with the Stars” walks at Magee Marsh, and I’ll be the volunteer host assisting them on one of their walks. (See, there are some sweeeeet perks to being a volunteer!) And I love the fact that Tom and Scott are donating 100% of the proceeds from their two walks to the Ohio Young Birders Club. That’s true generosity of spirit, if you ask me.

These weeks leading up to my annual visit to the Lake Erie shoreline are always hard to endure. Not only is my excitement getting boosted by the daily bird sightings, but preparations for the festival are in high gear now as we count down the last 17 days.

Biggest Week T-shirt for 2015

Biggest Week T-shirt for 2015

The new festival t-shirt design was just revealed this weekend. Created by Paul Riss (of Punk Rock Big Year fame), this one is already a big hit with everyone who has seen it.

And even more exciting, there’s now a smartphone app created just for the Biggest Week (the first time a birding festival has had its own app…very cool). I got my free copy from BirdsEye on the day it was released, and set it up to link with my eBird account. So now when I launch the app, it uses GPS to tell me instantly if there are birds nearby that I haven’t yet seen. It shows my “life list” as well as a list of all the species that have been seen by other people in whatever location I happen to be in at the moment.

BirdsEye screenshotAs you can see in this screenshot from my phone, I still haven’t managed to see the Connecticut and Kentucky Warblers (nor the Prairie Warbler, which isn’t shown on this screen). So only three more warblers to go and I will have seen all of the eastern species at least once. The Connecticut is one of the hardest ones for anyone to see because they skulk around deep in the underbrush, taunting us, defying us to find them. I’m sure I’ll eventually see one though. I’m in no hurry. I like the idea of always having more birds to see for the first time anyway. The anticipation is almost as good as the moment you finally get to see the bird. Almost.

Blackburnian Warbler, one of my favorites

Blackburnian Warbler, one of my favorites


And the anticipation of being back in the midst of all those amazing birds is almost too much to take. This year I’ll be on my own for the first time, but I’m okay with that. I’m hoping to connect with a few special friends for quiet walks on the beach (…and in the woods and marshes). And for those times I feel the need to be with other people, it’ll be easy to mingle with a few hundred of my fellow birders on the Magee Marsh boardwalk. I don’t like to be in crowds all the time, but even an introvert like me can appreciate the fun of being surrounded by other people who love the birds as much as I do. Some of my favorite memories are from times on the Magee Marsh boardwalk when a group of total strangers shared smiles while watching a bright yellow or orange bird hopping from leaf to leaf just inches away, in total disregard of us. Those are the moments when I feel the real magic of birds, and I remember why this place is so special to so many people. I just cannot wait!



Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Bird Migration | Tagged | 8 Comments

Zugunruhe: Do You Feel It?

Zugunruhe. Do you feel it too? It means “migratory restlessness,” and it’s normally used to describe the behavior of birds and other migratory species as they prepare for their long journeys in spring and fall. (It’s pronounced “zoo gen ROO ha” — or at least that’s as close as I’ll ever get to pronouncing a German word correctly.)

Humans are obviously not migratory species, but as a birder, I experience something similar to Zugunruhe each spring as I anticipate the arrival of the birds from their southern wintering grounds. I get antsy if I have to spend too much time indoors, unable to be out searching the skies and the trees for the first signs of birds returning from the south. Along with thousands of other birders, I begin reading the weekly “Birdcasts” from Cornell Lab of Ornithology (here), and watching radar images of birds taking to the skies each night across the continent. This image is from last night:

Bird radar April 1 2015

The blue circles are flocks of birds lifting off to head north. Isn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever seen? If you’d like to read more about using radar to see birds, David La Puma has a great explanation on his Woodcreeper blog, here. And if you want to check the radar yourself, go here around dusk and keep refreshing your screen to watch in real time as the birds lift off. Just remember to watch for the “blue donuts.”

Some of the migrants have already started to arrive here in Michigan — the Red-winged Blackbirds, Killdeer, Turkey Vultures, and even the Tree Swallows. In a few short weeks we’ll begin finding the first warblers, signaling that it’s time for me to migrate to the southern shore of Lake Erie to witness the amazing congregation of my beautiful avian friends at Magee Marsh. (By the way, if you’re planning to attend the Biggest Week in American Birding this year, you should know that we’ve sold out virtually every space in all of the field trips already, but there are still spaces available in the educational workshops and presentations each day. And you can walk the Magee Marsh boardwalk for free, so if you’re ready for your world to change forever, come and see what all the fuss is about. You’ve got to do this at least once in your life!)

I want to share a bit of migration trivia with you today, to remind us all of the enormity of what these birds do twice each year. It’s mind-blowing when you think about it.

Migration Mania Trivia

    • The longest known bird migration is by the Arctic Tern, which can travel up to 25,000 miles per year in its two migrations. It flies from the Artic to the Antarctic and back, crossing the entire planet each year!

      Arctic Tern (Photo by Lindsay Robinson via Flickr Creative Commons)

      Arctic Tern (Photo by Lindsay Robinson via Flickr Creative Commons)

    • Some individuals of the tiny Blackpoll Warbler species, who weigh only half an ounce, fly a 1600-mile nonstop journey across the Atlantic Ocean from eastern Canada to South America. See, I told you this would blow your mind! You can read the fascinating details of the newly-published study here. (Hint: They put light-sensing backpacks on the birds to determine their flight paths.)
Blackpoll Warbler by Kenneth Cole Schneider (via Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Blackpoll Warbler by Kenneth Cole Schneider (via Creative Commons license on Flickr)

  • Before embarking on their journeys, birds experience hyperphagia, a period of nonstop eating designed to put on body weight. Some birds actually double their weight before the trip and burn off all the excess fat before finally arriving on their breeding grounds, exhausted and starving.

  • Raptors, swallows, and waterfowl migrate during the day. Songbirds generally migrate at night. This may be because they need the daytime to feed and replenish their energy; conveniently, it may also help them avoid many predators–like raptors–who migrate during the day.

  • Monarch butterfly chrysallis (Mission, Texas, November 2014)

    Monarch butterfly chrysallis  (Mission, TX, 11/2014)

    Birds aren’t the only animals that still migrate–whales also migrate twice each year. And many insects migrate as well; the best-known insect migration is that of the monarch butterfly. But the monarchs that winter in the mountains of Mexico will not make the journey more than once. On their way north in the spring, the females stop to lay eggs on milkweed plants as they travel. Some of the adults will make it all the way north, but most will die along the way. The next generation emerges from their eggs and continues northward. When you see a monarch with tattered wings early in the season, that’s probably one that wintered in Mexico. The newest generation will have fresh, untorn wings. According to, summer generations only live two to five weeks; the last generation of the summer is the one that migrates to Mexico, and that generation can live for eight or nine months.

  • Elk in Yellowstone National Park

    Elk in Yellowstone National Park

    Some large land mammals still migrate in Africa, but the only remaining one I know of in North America is the elk. Many thousands of them migrate each year in and around Yellowstone National Park. Most other land mammal migrations on this continent have been disrupted by the ever-expanding human population and our need for homes and roads.

I hope you learned something from this, as I did while writing it for you. Now get outside and tune in to the wonders of bird migration! See you on the trails….


Posted in Bird Migration | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The One Thing

Red-winged blackbird calling Everyone has it, right? That one thing that is your sign that spring has finally arrived. For some people it’s seeing the first bulbs poking up from the mulch in their gardens. Others might be more attuned to the day the sap starts to flow in the maple trees. For me, it’s the first day I hear the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds or Killdeer. And today was that day, so I hereby declare the end of winter. Finally. Yes, there’s still snow on the ground here in Michigan and we’ll most likely have to endure more of it before we’re through. But now that I’ve heard the calls of both of my avian harbingers of spring, I feel the weight of winter melting off my weary shoulders. Hallelujah!

Great Horned Owl in bucket 2015Today I went to Lake St. Clair Metropark because I knew I could find these birds there.  I walked the trails for a half hour, passing the marsh where the blackbirds were already trying to out-shout each other from the tops of the cattails. I visited the Great Horned Owl bucket and found one of the adults already sitting there, as expected. I went over to check out the lake and found it still frozen solid, its surface speckled with ice fishermen and their tents.

Ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair

Ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair

So I decided to drive up to Port Huron, where I knew the river was ice-free. I wanted to see if I could find the King Eider that’s been there lately. I didn’t find it, and there wasn’t much other duck activity on the river today either. I spent a couple hours driving to various little parks and viewing areas along the shore, finding only scattered small groups of a half dozen species. There were Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, Redheads, a few Scaup, and some Buffleheads. And the only ones that weren’t really distant were the Redheads, so they’re the only photos I didn’t have to crop a great deal. Aren’t these beautiful ducks? Just look at the golden eye on this male…and the water droplet on his back (you might have to click on the pic for the larger version).

Male Redheads on the St. Clair River

Male Redheads on the St. Clair River

Redheads are diving ducks, so they’re always entertaining to watch as they leap out of the water and dive below in search of tasty morsels.

Now you see me....

Now you see me….  you don't!

…now you don’t!







But the most entertaining group of the day was this gathering of seven Common Goldeneye, five males and two females.

Common Goldeneye
They seem rather calm, don’t they? Well, don’t forget, it’s spring. And that means one thing to them: It’s time to find a mate. The mating display of this species is quite the spectacle, even for us humans. I made a video of it but something happened to that file, so I’ll just have to share some still photos.

The males display to the females by flipping their heads backward and forward repeatedly in a sort of “head dance,” as you’ll see in this series of pics:

Ah, he seems to have her attention with this first fancy move.

Ah, he seems to have her attention with this first fancy move.

Now let's show her how tall I am....

Now let’s show her how tall I am….

...and then the big finish! So baby, what do you think? Wanna date me?

…and then the big finish! So baby, what do you think? Wanna date me?

Let’s hope his efforts were enough to keep her away from his competition. (Here’s a video on YouTube if you want to see them in action.)

Here are a couple views of the river at Port Huron, looking across toward Canada:

Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario

Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario

The sculpture is called "Sugar the Iron Horse"

The sculpture is called “Sugar the Iron Horse”

Even though I didn’t see lots of birds today, the ones I saw were special and interesting. And even if I hadn’t seen any of these birds, this still would have been a great day — exercise, fresh air, sunshine and–most importantly of all–melting snow!!

I hope you’re finding time to get outdoors too. Being outside is always a good thing, but right now, at the end of winter, it’s really and truly good for the soul.

So what’s your “one thing” that means Spring?

Posted in Bird Migration, Ecotherapy, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Photo Friday: Dreaming of Spring

Photo Friday for blog - flower garden Photo Friday for blog - dogwood blossoms Photo Friday for blog - daffodils in woods

Posted in Ecotherapy, Flowers and Gardening, Photography | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Birding With a Purpose

Can you feel it? Something really BIG is going to happen on Monday at noon. People all across America are making plans. They’re reading field trip descriptions, booking hotels in northwest Ohio, texting their friends, and updating their “birds needed” lists. And at 12:00 noon on Monday, February 16 (tomorrow!), they’re all going to make sure they’re at their computers with their fingers warmed up and ready to go. That’s right, registration is opening for this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding!

Biggest Week Carbon Offset logoAs I do every spring, I’ll be telling you much more about the festival events and the birds as we move through the season. But today I want to tell you about something that makes me very proud to be associated with this event–Oh wait, did I tell you I’m on the festival planning team this year? I am! But that’s not what I was talking about. The thing that makes me proudest is that the Biggest Week (BW) has continued to maintain a laser-focus on their mission of bird conservation. These people aren’t just trying to sell a bunch of t-shirts with pictures of birds on them, no sirree, Bob! This purpose of this festival is to increase people’s connection with birds so they’ll care enough to contribute money in support of the important bird conservation work carried out by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO).

Last year’s festival raised $14,000 to help save habitat for the Golden-winged Warbler, a migrant bird that’s experiencing steep population declines.  If you’re curious, here’s a detailed description of how last year’s Biggest Week Carbon Offset donations were spent to help that species. (Hint: Planting 12,000 trees was just part of it!)

And this year’s Biggest Week Carbon Offset Program donations will help protect and restore habitat for the Cerulean Warbler, yet another species that is having trouble. The population of this tiny blue warbler has declined 70% in the past 40 years, mostly due to habitat loss caused by human activities like agriculture, mining, and logging. They’re so hard to find that it was even hard to find one at the Cerulean Warbler Weekend sponsored by Michigan Audubon. But I did manage to get this identifiable picture of one of the males high up in an oak tree:

Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan

Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan

Here’s a link to the American Bird Conservancy website that tells you all about the plight of the Cerulean Warbler. I’m excited to see how much we can raise this year to help stop the decline of this beautiful bird before it’s too late. And by the way, even if you aren’t able to come to the Biggest Week this year, you can still make a donation to the BW Carbon Offset Program to help the Cerulean Warbler. Here’s the direct link to Paypal , or you can also get to the donation page from the home page of the Biggest Week website, here.)

The easiest way to know it's a Cerulean: that black necklace.

The easiest way to know it’s a Cerulean: that black necklace.

In a world where there’s so much bad news all the time, and where it’s hard to feel you can make a difference, this event stands out as a highlight in my year. It’s supported by hundreds of volunteers who bend over backwards to make sure visitors have a great time while they’re in Ohio. And the birds always put on a spectacular show for us. It’s a win/win situation: The birds (and other creatures) benefit from the habitats protected, and the people who live and work in northern Ohio benefit from the tourism dollars that have become so very important to them in recent years. (Economic studies found that the Biggest Week in American Birding brings an average of $25 million a year to the local economy. Hotels, bed & breakfasts, and restaurants hire more staff to keep up with the added business generated by the 60,000 people who show up to see the birds each spring.) And on top of all that, the people who travel to the shores of Lake Erie to see the spectacular migration have a great time while they’re here.

Biggest Week gives back

Some of the causes that benefited from the 2014 Biggest Week in American Birding.

So you see, we birders aren’t just a bunch of dorky people with binoculars and funny vests wandering around out there — we’re protecting wetlands, planting trees, and saving birds! Why not join us and see how great it feels to be a part of this worthwhile event?

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Bird Migration | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Migration Mania #3: Black-and-white Warbler

Okay, those of you who are paying attention have already said, “Hey, wait, it’s not migration time yet! What are you trying to pull here?” And you are absolutely correct–migration is many weeks away. But there’s no reason we can’t daydream about pretty little birds to help us get through the depths of winter, right? So I’m picking up with my Migration Mania series early this year. You may have forgotten about this series because I started it in 2013 with two articles (here and here) and then neglected it last year. But I didn’t forget…aren’t you glad?

And by the way, I’m not the only one thinking of migration already — the Biggest Week in American Birding is going to open registration in mid-February. I’m the coordinator for the festival’s bloggers again this year, and our whole team is gearing up to bring you lots of fun info over the next few months. Such excitement, I can hardly contain myself! (By the way, if you’re coming to the festival, you’d be wise to book your accommodations asap because many places are already sold out for May 8-17!)

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler on tree trunk

So in this edition of Migration Mania I’m going to tell you a bit about the Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia). He’s unusual among warblers because he doesn’t wear any of the bright colors we usually think of in these birds — yellows, oranges, and blues. The BAWW (that’s cool birder-speak for Black-and-white Warbler) wears a bold graphic pattern of…wait for it…black and white!

And not only does he stand out for his appearance, but he’s got a different way of feeding than the other warblers too. Most of them forage for food around the leaves of trees and shrubs, but this guy spends a lot of his time on the trunk and branches, probing the bark for hidden goodies. This is how you normally see a nuthatch or a creeper feeding, not a warbler. It’s an advantage for those of us trying to take warbler photographs, because it’s easier to keep focused on a bird moving up a tree trunk than one that’s hopping over and under leaves at the speed of light (well, that’s how fast it seems sometimes…).

So where are the BAWWs now, while we’re freezing our tushies off up north? They’re down in Central and South America, that’s where. Places like Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. Nice and warm, and plenty of food. You can see on this map that there are some of them in the southern U.S. now, but they’re probably not on the move yet. By early or mid-March we’ll start seeing some northerly movements though, and they’ll be off on their long journey to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada.

eBird map of Black-and-white Warblers in January 2015

Since this species is one of the earliest to move northward in spring, some of them will already be nesting in April. It’s thought that they can come north earlier in the spring because of their ability to feed from the bark of trees–they don’t need the leaves to be opened before they come up here, like most of the other warblers. That’s a cool little fact to know, isn’t it? There are a few more fun facts below these photos.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler (2)

Fun facts:

  • These little birds weigh less than half an ounce and will fly an average of 20 miles each night during migration. Yes, that’s right, they migrate at night. As dawn breaks they drop down from the sky to feed so they’ll have energy to fly again the next night.
  • What do they eat? Butterflies, moths, ants, flies, bugs, click beetles, round-headed wood borers, leaf beetles, weevils, leafhoppers, plant lice, spiders, daddy longlegs, and more. Yum!
  •  The females build their nests on the ground, using dry leaves and grasses. The nest is usually at the base of a tree or beside a fallen log.
Black-and-white Warbler undertail

I love the pattern on his undertail coverts (the feathers that cover the base of his tail feathers).

I hope you enjoyed getting a closer look at one of my favorite warblers! And I hope you’ll be inspired to look for these adorable little birds when you’re outdoors this spring.

(Source for the stuff I didn’t know: Birds of North America Online from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)


Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Bird Migration | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments