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.)

Ecotherapy in Barry County

Just look at this and imagine breathing fresh air and hearing birds sing as the sun shines on your face —

Searching for Dickcissel
Searching for Dickcissel

Now that’s a good dose of nature therapy. We just spent a few days on the west side of the state at a Michigan Audubon event called “Cerulean Warbler Weekend” (CWW). It’s an annual festival celebrating this beautiful (and declining) warbler species.  In contrast to the very big festival we’ve been attending in Ohio every May, CWW was small and intimate. We liked it very much — the people were friendly, the scenery was idyllic, and the birding was rewarding.

Field where we saw a distant Henslow's Sparrow through the scope
Field where we saw a distant Henslow’s Sparrow through the scope

The event was based at Michigan Audubon’s Otis Farm Bird Sanctuary, just outside of the small town of Hastings. One of our hikes was a tour around the sanctuary with the resident manager, Tom Funke. Tom’s passion for this property was evident as he explained how and why he had used specific management techniques in certain parts of the sanctuary to tweak the habitat for wildlife. He knew every type of tree, grass, and wildflower we saw, and patiently answered lots of questions from the enthusiastic birders on our hike. I was very impressed with him and the entire Otis Sanctuary. Otis Sanctuary - Cerulean Warbler Weekend (4) (800x479)

Me on the trail at Otis Farm
Me on the trail at Otis Farm

We also went on carpooling and bus field trips around Barry County, searching for warblers, flycatchers, and sparrows, among many other species. We had the extreme pleasure of being led by naturalist Greg Nelson on two of the trips. He took great pains to make sure everyone in the group got to see the birds they were most interested in, and it was clear that he knew this area and its birds very well. He had a very effective technique for teaching us to recognize the calls and songs of the various birds when the woods were just an overwhelming chorus of so many species at once. He’d have us stand quietly listening, and when he heard the target bird’s song, he’d raise his finger up in the air so we’d know that was the one we were trying to see. I really liked that method. Often on these group bird outings there are so many people talking to each other that it’s hard to hear the birds, so I appreciated those times when he asked everyone to stand quietly and listen together.

Blurry Dickcissel singing
Dickcissel singing

Thanks to Greg’s skill and knowledge, I added Acadian and Alder Flycatchers to my life list, as well as Yellow-throated Vireo. We saw Dickcissels, which I thought were new birds for me too, but when I got home and checked my list I saw they were already on it. Then I remembered that I’d added them when I heard them singing last year in a field near home. But since I’d never laid eyes on one of them, I’d considered them a “BVD bird” — better view desired. And I certainly got my “better view” of them this time, although my pictures don’t seem that great. I had perfect views of two singing Dickcissels through Greg’s spotting scope, on a roadside somewhere in Barry County.

Birders on the move!
Birders on the move!

Cerulean Blues book coverThe keynote speaker at this event was Katie Fallon, author of “Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird.” I got a chance to chat with Katie before her first talk on Friday and asked her to sign my copy of her book, which she graciously did. Although I had almost finished reading her book, I still enjoyed hearing her talk about the problems being caused for this tiny warbler by the mountaintop mining practices in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. The bird isn’t officially listed as “endangered” yet, but it may well be on the path to that sad status very soon if we can’t find ways to re-create suitable habitat for it.

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans
Katie Fallon and I getting a bad case of “Warbler Neck”

I was thrilled when Katie joined our field trip the next morning to look for Ceruleans around Barry County. We carpooled to several locations and found the birds singing easily, but were unable to see them. These small birds spend their time at the very tops of the tree canopy, frustrating birders everywhere. But on our last stop of the morning, after explaining why it’s important not to overuse playback, Greg allowed someone to play the Cerulean song from their bird app. I was glad that he refrained from using playback of songs for most of the morning, trying to get us a view without disturbing the birds. But when he finally relented and agreed to do it once, that was the magic trick — the singing male suddenly zipped back and forth across the road over our heads, coming down a little bit lower in the trees to investigate the song of a “competing male.” I think the bird was still at least 30 feet above us when I snapped these photos. Thanks to Greg and Katie’s combined efforts, I got this life warbler that had eluded me for years. I think it was a life bird for several other people on  the trip because I had lots of requests for copies of my pics.  To make things simpler, I told them I would put the pics here on the blog so they could download them for their own memories of this exciting sighting.

Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan
Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan
The easiest way to know it's a Cerulean: that black necklace.
The easiest way to know it’s a Cerulean: that black necklace.

And something very inspiring happened while we were looking at the Dickcissels along that dusty road. Often when you’re in a rural location, you’ll be approached by passing motorists wanting to know what you’re all looking at. As we were lined up to the side of the road with several spotting scopes on tripods and a bunch of people with binoculars looking out into a seemingly empty field, a man in a pickup truck pulled up alongside and asked what we were doing.

And this is where the enthusiasm of my fellow birders always delights me: You’d think we were small children, the way we all crowded around his truck excitedly telling him the name of the bird and encouraging him to get out and take a look at it. Even men in their 60s and 70s were urging him to come take a look. And wouldn’t you know, he was interested and got out of his truck to take a look through the spotting scope. He stepped back and asked the name of the bird again. Dickcissel? Yep. He looked again and looked up with a huge smile on his face and said something like, “Well, I’ll be darned.” And then one of the birders stepped up to him to show him the photo of the bird in a field guide. He spent another minute or two chatting with us about where we were all from and then another vehicle came along and he had to move his truck. But he thanked us and drove off smiling in wonderment that a beautiful bird like that was right here, in a field he usually didn’t even glance at.

And that, my friends, is how you start winning people over to Team Conservation.  It’s all about the sharing — sharing the beauty of these birds and their songs, sharing our enthusiasm and love for them, and sharing the knowledge of how humans can unwittingly hurt their chances of survival. Once people have an awareness of the amazing birds that live among us, I think they’ll be more likely to help protect them. At least that’s how it happened to me.  🙂 Enjoy a few more pictures from this peaceful and educational weekend, below.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Eric looking over the meadow at Otis Farm
Eric looking over the meadow at Otis Farm
Me with one of many snapping turtles we found on roads around the county
Me with one of many snapping turtles we found on roads around the county
Katie and me
Katie and me
Broad-winged Hawk - captive bird from rehab center
Broad-winged Hawk – captive bird from rehab center

Cerulean Warbler Weekend - Eric 024 (800x600) Dragonfly