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!

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?

Black-and-white Warbler

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.)

People Who Need People

That title is a reference to the well-known song sung by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” The line from that song that has always resonated with me is this: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” I’m a bit of a loner and an introvert, tending to spend most of my time alone or with just a couple other people. But even though I know there’s nothing inherently wrong with being this way, I still feel a bit of shame at my inability to be the outgoing, always-on-the-run, busy-busy-busy personality that is more socially acceptable in this country.

Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk
Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk

As an HSP, I have a strong aversion to crowds and noise. Some people are stimulated in a positive way by being around lots of other people, but I have the exact opposite experience. After spending time at a large social function, I usually feel very tired and emotionally drained. We HSPs take in so much more information in any given situation than most people that our brains just get overloaded with stimuli. Because of this, I’ve learned to orchestrate my life so that I have lots of quiet time for recuperation and reflection on my experiences. Knowing all of this, you might wonder why I would voluntarily go to a birding festival where the most popular birding spot is a narrow boardwalk that gets so crowded you sometimes have to push your way between people. (The photo to the left is only a medium-sized crowd — it gets much worse in spots where a really good bird is spotted!)

Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!
Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!

It’s funny though, that because of the beauty and general awesomeness of the birds, I don’t really get as tense as I would somewhere else with the same crowds. Like, for example, if the crowds were that thick at a street art festival, I’d only be able to spend short amounts of time there. But the birds make all the difference. Even though I’m surrounded by throngs of people, my mind is mostly focused on the little flying creatures in the trees.  If you saw me on the Magee boardwalk, you wouldn’t necessarily think that I was any different from anyone else. You’d probably even see me helping other people to see and identify birds; I really do love interacting with people when I can teach or show them something interesting.

This year at the Biggest Week I had a moment where I was struck by something ironic: I’ve always thought birding was a healthy and fun way to avoid people, but I found that my love of birds has begun to bring me closer to people.

My festival name badge
My festival name badge

Like the moment when a complete stranger noticed my name badge and told me she’d read my blog and liked it. Wow, talk about having your mind blown….that was great. One of the most rewarding things someone can say to me is that they read my blog and enjoy it.

There was another moment where my blog started a conversation too. I was on the boardwalk in a very crowded section, trying to catch a glimpse of some warbler (I think it was a Golden-winged…). I exchanged pleasantries with a very well-known birder who began asking me about my HSP trait, telling me she’d read my blog and was curious about it. We had a quiet conversation right in the middle of a huge crowd of people, with people jostling for better vantage points to see the bird. I was so touched by this and made sure to thank her for talking to me about it.

It may sound egotistical, but I believe it’s a core human truth: We all like to know that we’re important, that we make a difference.  This is something I’ve struggled with in recent years because I don’t usually get this kind of feedback in my regular life. I question whether I’m doing anything useful with my life. These moments of connection meant SO much to me. I thought I was okay with my quiet, relatively isolated existence. It’s not that I’m not happy — I am. But my interactions with other bird lovers in the past month have added another dimension to my life, making it richer and more meaningful.

I’m still processing what this all means to me. For example, why have I never felt this type of connection to any other group of people before? What is it about bird people that makes me feel so good? I think it may be our shared concerns for the natural world, the tie that binds all human and animal life together.  Part of me doesn’t want to over-analyze the whole experience, but I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

After all these years, is it possible I really could be one of the “People Who Need People”?

Migration Mania Series #1: Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh during migration
Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh during migration

I know my blog audience is made up of many types of people — birders & non-birders, HSPs, and general nature lovers — and I hope that I usually balance the topics enough for all of you to find something interesting here. Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for years will know that spring is extra special for me because of the excitement of migration. So I hope the non-birders will be patient in the coming weeks as there’s more bird talk than usual. In the next five weeks leading up to the Biggest Week in American Birding, I’ll be doing a mini-series of posts I’m calling “Migration Mania,” in which I plan to tell you  a little bit about some of our migrating birds and hopefully convey why they’re so much fun to watch. And be forewarned, I have a mission to get everyone excited about birds eventually. (I get a huge thrill when someone tells me they’ve started paying more attention to birds after reading my writing about them, something that has been happening more often recently.)

So to get us started, I offer you the first installment: The Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler in Tawas, MI
Blackburnian Warbler in Tawas, MI

Warblers are the stars of spring migration and one of the reasons I fell in love with birds; therefore I  have to start with my favorite of all the warblers, Setophaga fusca, the Blackburnian Warbler. This tiny little bird is the only warbler on our continent to have an orange throat, allowing him to stand out even among a family of birds with so many other brightly-colored members. (The predominant color among warblers seems to be yellow.)

Warblers are very small birds, usually around 4-5″ (10-12 cm) long and weighing less than a half ounce (14 grams). Most of them spend the winters in Central and South America and then migrate to their summer breeding grounds in the northern US and Canada (see range map below). So imagine this: you weigh less than one ounce, are 5″ long, and you have to fly a couple thousand miles. Twice a year. Solely powered by the energy your little body can generate. That fact alone should give you a much bigger appreciation for these amazing little birds.

Range Map of Blackburnian Warbler
Range Map of Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warblers breed in the eastern part of the northern US and southern Canada. On their breeding grounds, they spend their time way up at the tippy tops of the trees, but during migration they often come down nearer to ground level so we can see them in their beautiful breeding plumage. Honestly, I think they know how pretty they are, and that’s why they come down to the Magee Marsh boardwalk — to show off for us.

The Blackburnian Warbler spends its winters in the forests of the Andes, mostly from Venezuela to Peru.  In early April it migrates northward around the Gulf Coast. I checked eBird today to see where the Blackburnians are right now, and I see that most of the reports are from Costa Rica and Columbia. But interestingly, there was a report from Brevard, Florida a couple weeks ago, so they’re definitely heading north now. (Well, at least one of them is!) Here’s a link to the map if you’re curious. (And just as I was preparing this post, Greg Miller posted links to the eBird maps for all the warbler species on his blog, here.)

I can’t wait to get my first glimpse of a bright orange flash in the trees this year. The anticipation of that thrill is almost as good as the actual moment I first get my binoculars focused on one of these little feathered gems. It’s a challenge to  find them and then keep your eyes on them — they move quickly through the branches grabbing insects from the undersides of the new leaves — and I always have sore shoulders after a day of watching warblers. But it’s SO worth it.