After three consecutive weeks of focusing on learning shorebirds, we took a break this weekend and went warbler hunting. (Of course you know I mean hunting with the camera and binoculars, right?) The fall warbler migration is in full swing, and at least 12-15 species have been seen in our local parks recently, so we wanted to see how we’d do at identifying them in their drabber fall plumages.
We spent three hours at a very crowded Lake St. Clair Metropark on a hot afternoon this past holiday weekend. I should clarify that the picnic areas and beach were crowded but the nature trails were oddly deserted. In our three hours out there, we only saw one other birder and a couple of families on the trails. That was awesome for our birding plans, but on the other hand, isn’t it sad when thousands of people come to a park and never venture more than 100 feet from a parking lot or picnic table? I don’t mean to judge other people — I know we all have our own idea of relaxation — but I just know how much they’re missing by not exploring the natural world. I know my life has been enriched greatly since I started watching and studying the birds, and I wish I could get everyone to go birding at least once with someone who can help them really see the birds.
The nature trails at this park consist mostly of woods and marsh, with a small pond at one end. (The pond is pretty much owned by a pair of Mute Swans.) The area with the most easily-seen warblers was the edge of the woods along the pond loop. This section was full of bird activity. Some of them we knew right away, like the Wilson’s Warblers with their little black caps. Others had to be identified from my photos after we got home. As you look at the warbler pics in this post, keep in mind that these guys flit around very quickly, making it hard to get decent photos (a tripod is useless for warblers). My strategy for warbler photography with my heavy 400mm lens is to set the camera for continuous shooting and manual focus, hold as steady as I can, and fire away. I don’t really have any hopes of getting print-worthy warbler photos this way, but it still helps in identification when I can enlarge them on the computer screen to inspect wing bars or face markings.
I think after you see these photos you’ll appreciate the difficulty in identifying these birds in their fall plumages. Some of the summer field marks remain in a faded form, but many of the juvenile birds look very different from the adults. I’ve got a dozen field guides and websites to help me, but still….
Whenever I’m watching these tiny migrating birds, I think about the incredible distances they travel each year. Twice. Most warblers spend the summer breeding season in Canada or the northern U.S. Beginning in August (timing varies by species), they make their way back down to their winter homes in the Caribbean and South America. Some of them winter in the southern U.S. as well. Then they make the return trip north again in the spring. So imagine you’re a bird weighing about half an ounce and you have to fly 1000-2000 miles, flapping those little wings over mountains and oceans…isn’t that the definition of amazing? Sadly, many of them don’t make it for various reasons; some starve when they can’t find enough food on their journey, others collide with those giant wind turbines or the lighted windows of skyscrapers at night, and still more succumb to exhaustion or disease. When you know all of that, I think it’s impossible not to marvel at these fascinating and beautiful creatures. (That reminds me that I’ve meant to write about ways you can help make the world safer for migrating birds…’cause I know you want to.)
Although I enjoy the challenge of identifying birds in their fall plumages (I really do, honest), I’ll be very happy when spring returns and the birds will be dressed in their beautiful breeding colors and patterns. After the hours and hours spent zooming in on photos and paging through field guides for shorebirds and warblers, spring birding will seem like a piece of cake!