Golden-Winged Warbler and Other Goodies
For the birder set, late summer on the Cape and Islands is synonymous with an assortment of sought-after shorebirds and seabirds. This week was case-in-point, with the rarity parade including a continuing American Avocet at Seagull Beach in Yarmouth, a hyper-rare Common Ringed Plover in Truro, a Franklin’s Gull in Sandwich, and snazziest of all, a Pacific Golden-Plover picked out by unheralded good-birder Lee Dunn over on Nantucket, and representing just the 4th state record.
While their late summer migration is more subtle, interesting songbirds were also about, with several out-of-range Lark Sparrows and a Golden-winged Warbler turning up this week. Of the six species I just listed, the Golden-winged Warbler is the only one I actually saw. So I’ll give you one guess what my topic is this week – sorry, Lee.
Too often these days I’m writing about OPB – Other People’s Birds. I don’t get out much between a work from home order and two kids under 3, but sometimes I luck out and the birds come to me. Early Monday morning, as I walked the neighborhood with my 6-month-old daughter on my hip, I noticed it was way birdier than usual – it was clear we had an influx of migrant and other dispersing birds overnight. A few darting shapes looked to be migrant Red-eyed Vireos, so l eventually went back out alone to see what else might be mixed in.
Soon, a startlingly attractive bird popped out of a neighbor’s oak, eye level in perfect morning light. It stopped my heart – a male Golden-winged Warbler. Though it’s a breeding species of the Eastern US and not some far-flung Old World or West Coast vagrant, this is nevertheless a somewhat mythical creature. Those of us in the conservation community watched helplessly as Golden-winged Warblers went locally extinct in Massachusetts over the last 20 years. It seems less tragic when you consider that they didn’t breed here at all until the late-19thcentury, but it still would have been nice to keep them around a bit longer. But they lost their habitat as their shrublands grew into forests and subdivisions, and lost their very genome to hybridization with the more aggressive and successful Blue-winged Warbler. The hybrids are prevalent enough that I had to look hard to make sure mine had no evidence of Blue-winged genes.
Golden-winged Warblers are a lovely patchwork of gray, black, and yellow – glowingly yellow crown and wings, striking black mask and throat, white or gray everything else. They are fantastic looking birds, but it’s hard for me to know how an average person might perceive them. In the brain of a birder, the objective physical beauty of a bird is amplified in some immeasurable way by its rarity, as well as other intangibles specific to the individual. Like maybe it was a “nemesis bird”, which is a species that has escaped your binoculars for years despite your best efforts. In my case, this was my first Golden-winged Warbler for Massachusetts, never mind my neighborhood (where it became my 139th species for those keeping score at home).
Sadly, I lacked the optimism to bring my camera that morning, and the bird vaporized before I returned, breathlessly, with my long lens. I’m haunted by that wide-open, perfectly lit look, lost to history. Sometimes I wonder what self-destructive tendencies compel me to leave my camera in my house or car at just the wrong time – is there a birding psychologist in the house? Let this be a cautionary tale – don’t underestimate the birding potential of your own yard, and don’t leave your camera in your house – you may miss a Golden opportunity.