Speaking of Nature: The blackpoll warbler: Yet another gift from the gods

  • With the soft, creamy colors of meadow grasses in the background, this first-year juvenile blackpoll warbler posed for a photo next to a cluster of absolutely exquisite silky dogwood berries.   PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Gazette
Published: 9/20/2022 4:43:26 PM
Modified: 9/20/2022 4:42:48 PM

I can tell you without hesitation that I did not want to get out of bed. It was a Sunday, I had endured a long week of school and my bed was so soft and warm that I felt as though I could easily sleep for several more hours. The problem was the fact that the weather outside was perfect. The sky was clear, the temperature was in the mid 50s and there wasn’t even a hint of a breeze; perfect conditions for both birding and photography. So sleeping in really wasn’t an option.

I stumbled out into the kitchen, turned on the coffee maker and then stumbled over to the couch where I collapsed into a different sort of comfort. It was at that point that I reassessed my decision to wake up. Would it really be so terrible if I just leaned back into the pillows and drifted off? Before I surrendered myself to comfort I decided to check BirdCast, which is an online bird-tracking tool sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The radar map showed that millions of birds had been migrating during the night and most of the activity was in the Northeast. Sleeping in really, really wasn’t an option.

I poured my coffee, put on my field clothes, grabbed my hat, a small bag of birdseed and my camera and headed out the door. The sun was just rising as I headed down the hill to the trail across my meadow and in short order I was at my Thinking Chair. The high humidity of the previous day allowed a substantial dew to fall during the night and my pants were generously soaked with cold water, but the cheeriness of the chickadees that were waiting for me was the perfect antidote for any mild physical discomfort. By the time I sat down I was surrounded with chickadees, titmice and song sparrows, all of whom look forward to my arrival because I bring breakfast with me.

Once I settled myself I got to the task of assessing the bird community around me. All of the “regulars” were present, but I was looking for the “irregulars,” the migrants who at that very moment might be landing to rest and eat after a long nighttime flight. The vast majority of the birds that I would likely see were going to be warblers, but exactly which types of warblers was a mystery. That’s what makes birding so much fun!

As I pondered the possibilities I also made a short wish list in my head. This was not a list of species, but rather a list of potential perches upon which said species might land and pose for photos. Directly in front of me, just across the trail that I maintain with my mower, there was a small patch of silky dogwood bushes with gorgeous berries that were in perfect condition. Just to the left was a pair of common milkweed plants whose leaves had turned as yellow as ripe bananas. Much further to the left was a patch of speckled alder bushes that had multiple exposed twigs that would be ideal for photography. These are my premium wish list items, but birds rarely use them. Still, it is worth putting in the time on the off chance that the long shot is realized.

About 40 minutes into my 2-hour observation session I was literally crawling with chickadees. They were landing on my hat to scrutinize the seeds I had put there, they were landing on my knee to poke through another pile of seeds and one curious individuals landed on the top of my camera to see what that was all about. To be eyeball-to-eyeball with a chickadee is a magical thing and my morning would have been complete if it had ended there, but things were about to improve in a most magical way. If you think of birding like you think of a slot machine you will have the right idea. I was about to hit the jackpot.

In the midst of being swarmed by chickadees I noticed that an unknown bird had landed in the silky dogwood bush that was directly in front of me. Of course the bird was on the backside of the bush, but I could immediately tell that it was a warbler and that it wasn’t one of the young common yellowthroats that had been in the meadow all year. This was definitely one of the “irregulars” that I had been waiting for.

I quietly whispered an appeal to the photo gods. “Okay Nikonus, here we go,” and just like that, the bird moved from the lower rear portion of the dogwood to the upper front of the dogwood where it paused right next to some of those exquisite berries. Everything after that went perfectly. The camera focused quickly, the light was ideal, the camera settings were just right and the resulting photos were magical. The only problem was that I couldn’t immediately identify the bird. This was a “confusing fall warbler!”

With some help from my brother (one of my go-to birding buddies) and my Sibley Guide to Birds we quickly came up with an identification. This was a first-year juvenile blackpoll warbler (Setophagastriata). The identification is very precise and wordy because the “confusing fall warbler” category is such a frustrating mess. The juvenile birds often bear only a slight resemblance to the adults and they can drive you mad. Fortunately, years of experience and a flock of friendly chickadees saved me from any such distress. I eventually walked back up to the house with a smile on my face and a fulfilling sense of accomplishment in my heart. Definitely better than sleeping late.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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