Walking with Warblers

From those tall hemlocks proceeds a very fine insect-like warble, and occasionally I see a spray tremble, or catch the flit of a wing. I watch and watch till my head grows dizzy and my neck is in danger of permanent displacement, and still do not get a good view.

~John Burroughs, on trying to observe warblers in the woods, from In the Hemlocks, 1910

Most of us can relate to what naturalist John Burroughs had to say about trying to observe warblers. Birders typically hear them before seeing them, then strain for a glimpse, often looking straight up into the tall trees, trying to catch enough of a view of the flitting creature to confirm an identity. It can lead to the malady known as warbler neck, and can be frustrating . But, when it pays off, it can pay off big, as these tiny songsters are among our most beautiful birds.

Black-throated blue warbler male 2

Black-throated blue warbler (click photos to enlarge)

Spring is warbler time as they migrate from their wintering areas to their breeding grounds dressed in their finest. While we do have several species that nest here in the Piedmont, many others are passing through, on their way to higher elevations or latitudes to breed and raise their young. But, there is a place where warblers are incredibly abundant during spring migration, or at least that is what I had read. That place is the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on the south shore of Lake Erie.

Trail entrance Magee Marsh

West entrance to Magee Marsh (click photos to enlarge)

It is a 2000+ acre state wildlife management area, adjacent to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and is home to the famed Magee Marsh boardwalk, which regularly appears on lists of the top birding spots in America. It is also home to The Biggest Week in American Birding festival for ten days each May, around the peak of the spring migration.

Magee Marsh boardwalk 1

Birders line the boardwalk at Magee Marsh

The boardwalk is just under one mile in length, but is the destination for thousands of birders each spring due to the amazing number and variety of birds that tend to pile up here, waiting for the right conditions to fly across Lake Erie as they migrate north. I was a bit hesitant to visit such a potentially crowded area, but really wanted to see this spectacle, so we decided to arrive on the last day of the festival and spend a day or two birding, hoping the crowds might thin. When I made my lodging reservations, it was apparent we would not have had any choice anyway, as every lodging I could find in the area (it is in rural farmland about 30 minutes from Toledo) was booked through the festival. Birders are obviously good for business. Arriving on Sunday afternoon, we avoided the crowds, and spent a couple of productive hours on Wildlife Drive at nearby Ottawa NWR. The next morning, we arrived at Magee Marsh a little after sunrise, with only a dozen or so cars as company. This is a good start, I thought. It turns out, weather this year had delayed the migration a bit, and the weather last Monday (chilly, with winds out of the north) is the perfect set up for keeping the birds in place, and low, making them much more visible. It would be one of those days to remember…

Missed shot

I have way too many shots like this, or with just twigs where the warbler had been

Based on some tips about birding the area I read online, I was carrying my 300mm telephoto, a flash, and my tripod onto the boardwalk. After walking about 50 feet and already seeing several warblers, and viewing the conditions (thick vegetation and close proximity to birds), I carried the tripod back to the car. This is a place for quick photos, maneuverability, and reasonable focal lengths (plus, the tripod is difficult to use when the boardwalk is crowded). Birds were everywhere! And close! As we made our way down the boardwalk, more and more birders started to arrive. But, in spite of the developing crowds (and this is the day AFTER the festival), you could always just walk a few feet and have a bird to yourself. It turned out to be an incredible day, a tiring day, but a really rewarding one. The hype is for real…this is an incredible place to bird. Below are some portraits of some of the 22 species of warblers we observed at Magee Marsh in our day and a half of birding. In addition to these 18 that are represented in photos, we had 4 others – yellow-rumped warbler, prothonotary warbler, worm-eating warbler (heard), and ovenbird (heard). The official checklist for the ten day festival period this year had 34 species of warblers viewed by the throngs.

Tennessee warbler

Tennessee warbler

Canada warbler

Canada warbler, one of the toughest to get a good look at, as they tended to stay hidden in the low shrubs

Wilson's warbler

Wilson’s warbler, another skulker that was rarely far from a thick tangle of twigs

Chestnut-sided warbler 2

Chestnut-sided warbler

Northern parula warbler male 1

Northern parula warbler

Magnolia warbler 1

Magnolia warbler

Bay-breasted warbler

Bay-breasted warbler – it took me most of the day to finally get a clear shot

Black-throated green warbler

Black-throated green warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Northern waterthrush

Northern waterthrush

common yellowthroat

Common yellowthroat male

Black-and-white warbler

Black-and-white warbler

Blackpoll warbler

Blackpoll warbler


Palm warbler

Palm warbler

American redstart male

American redstart

Black-throated blue warbler male

Black-throated blue warbler

Yellow warbler male

Yellow warbler

Cape May warbler 1

Cape May warbler

There were a few species we saw that I never managed to get a clear photo of, but, as you can see, it was an amazing day for warbler portraits. The other thing I loved was having the time to watch these beautiful birds do their thing, and to be close enough to observe some of the details of what they were doing. I spent about ten minutes with this Cape May warbler, watching it probe among the flowers on just one branch of this shrub (some type of gooseberry or currant??).

Cape May warbler 26

Probing for…?

Cape May warbler

Warblers are great arboreal acrobats

It almost looked as if it was drinking nectar from the flowers, but, after looking at zoomed-in images of this behavior, I think it was meticulously gleaning aphids from the the petioles and flowers.

Northern parula foraging

Northern parula doing a head-stand while foraging

While we were there on Monday, most of the birds were busy foraging in the thick vegetation bordering the boardwalk. On calm days, or when there are southerly winds, many of the birds will be higher in the trees feeding.

Cape May warbler foraging on tree trunk 1

Cape May foraging on tree trunk with a midge taking flight just above the bird

A couple of species (Cape May and Chestnut-sided warblers, in particular), often moved along tree trunks, picking off midges and other tiny insects from the furrows of the bark.

Black-and-white warbler 2

Black-and-white warbler forages much like a nuthatch

Of course, that is the primary feeding strategy of a species like the black-and-white warbler, although it seems to spend more time spinning around branches than it does creeping up trunks.

Chestnut-sided warbler with fish fly

Chestnut-sided warbler with a huge meal

While most of the warblers were feeding on small insects, like midges, one lucky guy managed to snag a beak-full. A chestnut-sided male grabbed a huge winged critter (I think it is a male fishfly), and after struggling to subdue it, dropping it, and recapturing it on the wing…

chesnut-sided warbler gulping down meal

Going, going, …

managed to gulp it down.

American redstart male singing

American redstart singing

The other prime activity seemed to be singing. And what a treat, especially for a guy that is losing some of his high frequency hearing, to be so close to so many species of songsters.

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

Northern parula warbler male singing

Northern parula belting it out

It was a fulfilling day of low level warbler-watching. After spending over 12 hours on the boardwalk, we were both pretty tired. I even had my first-ever photo-blisters from gripping and maneuvering a heavy camera rig all day. That night, as predicted, the winds shifted, creating favorable conditions for a flight over the lake (most warblers migrate at night). Many of the birds must have taken advantage of the winds, as the next morning was noticeably different. It was still great, but the birds tended to be higher up in the trees, and, they just were not quite as abundant. Experienced birders recommend spending a few days in the area for this very reason, since conditions can vary considerably from day to day with changes in weather.

Blackpoll warbler 1

The blackpoll warbler is a

When you stop to appreciate what these tiny birds have gone through to make it this far, it is humbling…the blackpoll warbler, for instance, winters in Brazil and migrates almost 5000 miles to its nesting grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. During the fall migration, this species takes a more easterly route that includes flying out over the Atlantic Ocean for distances up to 2100 miles non-stop (a flight that has been recorded to take up to 88 hours). The phenomenon of bird migration is one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world, and Magee Marsh is certainly one of the most remarkable places to witness it in spring. I’m glad we were fortunate, on our first visit, to experience it at its best.

Suet Sightings

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes.

~Lynn Thomson

This past week must have been the peak of spring migration in our woods. Every time I looked out, I saw something of interest, either just passing through among the branches, or stopping by the feeders.

Rose-breasted grosbeak in tree 1

Rose-breasted grosbeaks have been very abundant this past week (click photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite migrants is the rose-breasted grosbeak. They have been here for a couple of weeks now but seem to have reached their peak this past week. I have counted as many as eight at one time near the feeders. The males are one of our more boldly marked birds, with striking black and white and a colorful rose-colored breast and underwings.

Rose-breasted gtrosbeak female

Female rose-breasted grosbeak

Females arrived about a week after the males and don’t seem quite as abundant. They are drab in comparison, but are still a striking bird, especially with that bold head stripe and huge beak.

Rose-breasted grosbeak ifemale at suet

Female rose-breasted grosbeak helps herself to some suet

And they have been putting that beak to good use at both the sunflower feeders and the suet. It seems the suet has been getting more than its share of visitors this spring and on a few recent days, the birds have gone through more than one entire suet cake in a day (there are two suet feeders out).  I decided to set the camera up with the tripod, 500mm lens, and a flash, to see what I could record. The light is best late in the day when there is a shadow cast on the feeders, but still plenty of ambient light on the trees behind the deck. The flash highlights the birds without appearing too harsh, as is the case earlier in the day. In three afternoons, I had some pretty good luck, plus some bonus species that didn’t visit the suet, but were feeding in nearby trees.

Female common yelowthroat

Female common yellowthroat foraging in some low shrubs

Among the passers-by were a few warblers, including a female common yellowthroat, a worm-eating warbler, some northern parulas, and several black-and-whites. Some beautiful non-warblers also made the scene – American goldfinches, northern cardinals, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and summer and scarlet tanagers, along with a few others I’ll mention later.

Rose-breasted gtrosbeaks at suet

A pair of male rose-breasted grosbeaks at the suet

But most of the action has been at the suet feeders. So, close to one of the feeders on the deck, I attached a branch to the rail with a clamp, and set up the camera in the bedroom with an open door (yup, real wilderness photography), and waited. Here are a few of the highlights…

Blue jay at suet

A pair of blue jays have been making the rounds

Carolina chicadee on branch

A Carolina chickadee having a bad hair day

Downy woodpecker male on branch

Downy woodpecker hanging on

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse thinking…suet or seed? So many choices…

Red-bellied woodpecker male on branch

Red-bellied woodpecker male showing how he got his somewhat confusing name

Black-throated blue at suet

A black-throated blue warbler is the highlight of my suet sightings

But, of all the birds that are coming to the suet, my favorite has to be a male black-throated blue warbler. This is the first time I have had one of these beauties visit a feeder. There have been several moving through the trees (including one female that I have spotted), but this little guy is a regular visitor at the suet.

Black-throated blue on branch 2

This little male is rather bold, but only stays a few seconds on each visit

Male black-throated blues are one of our most stunning spring warblers, with a beautiful blue back and top of head, set off by the black throat and sides, and a white belly. They are common spring migrants in the east as they head north or to our mountains to nest. They may look so fresh and bright because they probably spent the winter in the Bahamas or the Greater Antilles. My warbler guide says they are frequent feeders at peanut butter or suet during migration, so I am glad this one (or more than one?) is living up to its reputation.

Black-throated blue on branch best

A quick pose, and then off he goes

I am glad I am around to appreciate the beauty of this tiny visitor, however long it decides to hang around. Sunday afternoon was a special treat with this guy visiting every 30 minutes or so, plus, out in the yard, a great crested flycatcher, two blue-gray gnatcatchers, and two male northern orioles (a new species for the property).

Rose-breasted grosbeak male on branch

Rose-breasted grosbeak waiting his turn

Oh, and the rose-breasted grosbeaks are still here, chowing down. Guess I had better get some more suet.

Roses in the Yard

Seen upon the ground, the dark bird is scarcely attractive with his clumsy beak overbalancing a head that protrudes with stupid-looking awkwardness; but as he rises into the trees his lovely rose-colored breast and under-wing feathers are seen, and before he has had time to repeat his delicious, rich-voiced warble you are already in love with him.

Neltje Blanchan, 1897

Rose-beasted grosbeak on feeder

First rose-breasted grosbeak of the season at the feeder (click photos to enlarge)

They’re back. Last Friday, April 22, I saw my first rose-breasted grosbeak at the feeder. Later in the day, there were three males at the feeder (and me with no camera handy). This is a few days earlier than I have seen them the past couple of years. Definitely one of my favorite spring migrants, the male rose-breasted grosbeak is certainly one of the most colorful birds to spend time at our feeders. They seem to prefer the open, platform-style sunflower feeder, but also visit the suet feeder with regularity.

Rose-beasted grosbeak on feeder 1

The rose-colored, v-shaped patch, is in stunning contrast to their bold black and white

You can tell they are a favorite of mine, since I seem to post blogs about their arrival each season. I suppose it is a combination of things that make them so appealing – they are regular visitors at the feeders, they tend to stay at feeders for longer periods of time than most birds, they are relatively large with what seems to be an over-sized beak, and they have a stunning color combination. Add their melodious song, and you have a bird to remember, and one to anxiously wait for each spring. First to arrive from their wintering grounds in Central and South America are the colorful males. The brownish females will be along in a few days. Together, they will snarf up sunflower seeds for a few weeks, and then be gone by mid-May, on their way to breeding grounds farther north, or in the higher elevations of our mountains.

Rose-beasted grosbeak on wire

Male with some speckling

Rose-beasted grosbeak on feeder 5

Male with a lot of speckling

Rose-beasted grosbeak on feeder 3

Male with almost no speckling

Even if I had not seen all three birds on the feeder at once, I would know there are at least three in the yard, based on differences in their plumage. Supposedly, you can see subtle differences in the shape of the rose-colored patch on individual males, but these guys also differ in the amount of speckling on their breast feathers.

head shot of grosbeak

This one has a tiny rose speck near the eye

Granted, pictures of birds on a feeder are not my usual thing, but the feeders near the window are suspended on a pulley system out beyond the deck, making it more difficult to position branches and other natural posts for the usual “bird on a branch” photo at feeding stations. I owe all this to the incredibly abundant and pesky squirrels that share these woods (where is the red-tailed hawk when you need it?). The good news is that the birds are close enough to the windows to allow great views to appreciate their subtle differences and beauty. And, it is a definite perk to be sitting here with a cup of coffee, typing on the laptop, and looking out at the roses in the yard, even if it is for only a few weeks.

Rose-beasted grosbeak on suet feeder

Male enjoying some suet



Garden Birds – Rose-breasted Grosbeak

One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.

~Henry David Thoreau

Perhaps he meant to say… one attraction in retiring was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in. I have lived in the woods for many years and always marveled at the arrival of spring, but it has always flown by into the heat and dark greens of summer too quickly. It seems I have never had the time to really watch it, to see its daily, sometime hourly, subtle shifts. I am cherishing it this year. The early spring wildflowers have peaked here in the Piedmont, but now is the time for the birds. I spent a couple of hours Sunday morning with friends walking the trail at Mason Farm Biological Preserve in Chapel Hill where we totaled over 50 species, including some great warbler sightings (even a nesting Northern Parula).


Bird watching at the garden usually provides some results (click photos to enlarge)

So, I am now spending time at home, watching the tree tops, and checking the feeders and garden area frequently for new arrivals. If I am in the mood for some photography, I will pull the car out to the garden and sit, window down, bean bag on the door panel, and watch. I placed some dead snags around the fence for perches and just added a water feature. The diversity of plants, the cover provided by the grape vine growing along one fence, and the fact that this is an edge habitat, make the garden an attractive place for any passing bird to stop and check out.

Feeding station near garden

Feeding station near garden

There is also a feeding station between the garden and a large plum tree (a favorite of the local birds due to its thick branching pattern and good cover). On most days, it is like a busy airport in this area with flights coming and going between the garden fence, the nearby woods, the plum tree, and the feeders. And this time of year you tend to get some international flights. Yesterday was a very good morning. The total for the day was 34 species, with 30 of those being seen in, or flying over, the garden in two hours in the morning. A complete list is at the end of this post. Over the next few days, I will post a few pictures of some of my favorite visitors.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak male at feeder

The bird that started it all on Monday morning, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

It all started when I got distracted from some household chore by a flash of color at the feeder outside the living room window – a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Certainly one of our most striking birds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks nest in our mountains and hardwood forest further north, but pass through much of the rest of the state in fall and spring migrations to and from their winter homes in the tropics. They have been regular visitors at my platform sunflower feeders for many years for a couple of weeks in late April and early May. They are deliberate in their behavior and will often stay at a feeding station for a considerable period of time before disappearing into the tree tops. Then, it may be a couple of hours before they reappear, so I keep one eye on the feeders this time of year and hope to catch a glimpse of one. They are definitely one of those birds that cause you to stop whatever you are doing and pay attention.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak at suet feeder

Rose-breasted Grosbeak at suet feeder

Their huge beak is well designed for crunching hard seeds (and bird banders’ fingers) so I was surprised to see one at my suet feeder near the garden. With the migration in full swing, I recently lashed a dead branch onto the feeder pole to provide a more natural perch for photography of any visitors. The grosbeaks took full advantage of it to chip away at the suet.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak male 4

A second male landed at the feeding station

While I was observing the one at the suet cage, another male landed and started feeding on an adjacent tube feeder with suet nuggets. You can see some differences in the plumage between the two birds – you can supposedly distinguish individual males by subtle differences in the shape and extent of their rose-colored breast and shoulder patches. After looking at the images I think I may have three different males – compare the first image at the platform feeder with the one above and below and look at the rose shoulder patches (or lack thereof) and the heads.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak male 3

Branch placed near suet for perch

The two males stayed with me for 20 minutes or so, feeding, and then both flew up into the trees. The grosbeaks did not reappear at this feeding station until much later in the day. But, I did hear their melodious song a few times from my woods off and on during the day. The song is somewhat like that of an American Robin, but richer in tone. Thoreau stated that the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is our richest singer, perhaps, after the Wood Thrush (which was also calling from these woods early and late in the day).

Rose-breasted Grosbeak male

The breast patch outlines may be distinctive for individual male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

Rose-breasted Grosbeak male 2

There are many reports this week from birders that have Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at their feeders

At one point, one of the males landed on a snag along the garden fence. He perched there for a couple of minutes, surveying his world, and helping me appreciate the beauty of mine. Make some time for yourself these next few weeks and get outside and catch some of the surprises of the season – it will be well worth it.

Species list for 2 hours of garden watching on 4/28/14:

Northern Cardinal, Eastern Bluebird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Northern Mockingbird, Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Summer Tanager, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, White-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, House Finch, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Mourning Dove, Carolina Wren, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee

American Crow, Blue Jay, Turkey Vulture (these three species flew over the garden)

Scarlet Tanager, Black-and-white Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush (heard and/or seen in the woods near the garden)

A Cup’s Worth of Birds

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager (click to enlarge)

Yesterday morning I sat out by the garden with a cup of coffee to listen and watch for birds – spring migration is in full swing. Here are the species seen or heard in about 45 minutes of sitting and sipping:

Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (first of season), American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskins (still a few around surprisingly), Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, American Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Northern Parula Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Wood Peewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-winged Blackbird.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird-4

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (click to enlarge)

Not a bad list for one cup of coffee…

The afternoon before there were two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at one feeder and this evening I also heard a Great Horned Owl. I love spring (and good coffee).