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It's warbler time

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Ryan Schain
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There are certain groups of birds that strike fear into the hearts of beginning birders. Immature gulls; young, perched hawks; sparrows in any context. More experienced birders also fear them but will never admit it. Mid-September is peak time for another of the hair-pullingly hard groups to sort through. They are gray, or maybe yellowish, or maybe both. Are those streaks? Are those undertail feathers white or off-white? Does it have yellow feet? These are the questions discerning birders are asking right now as they wrestle with the drab, the silent, the furtive, the “confusing fall warblers”.

Some recent cold fronts have brought birders the warblers they crave. I’ve been struggling to find time to get my fall warbler fix, so take comfort in the protracted fall migration season – some will be still be trickling through until late October. But sometimes all you need to do is grab the binoculars when you take the dog out.

Yesterday, while getting ready to take the boy to school, I heard a Carolina wren making a ruckus outside. This sound, the same agitated bird sound mimicked by birders in the act of what we call “pishing,” attracted the attention of other neighborhood birds, mainly titmice, some cardinals, and a few chickadees. I knew if some cryptic fall migrant was nearby, it would likely fly in to see what the fuss was about, so I grabbed the binos on my way out with the dog. Sure enough, a quiet little Cape May Warbler, born in some sprucey Canadian forest, was hanging in the periphery of the neighbor’s oak, hunting bugs.

Cape May Warblers are always a treat for birders — they are just uncommon enough, just good looking enough, just unpredictable enough as a migrant to consistently keep our interest. May and September are about the only months you can expect one around here. A male in spring is colorful, bright yellow with a rich chestnut cheek and a big white wing patch. In fall they become just another “confusing fall warbler,” vaguely yellow and gray with some streaks. Look for especially fine breast streaks, like from a really sharp pencil, and a very sharp little bill, sharp even for a warbler, like it could have been the tip of the aforementioned pencil. If they are in good migration condition, like the one I saw, they may seem almost round thanks to a breast full of fat. This fat will fuel a flight to maybe the Bahamas or Cuba, where it will winter in just about any kind of habitat, from coffee plantations to city parks.

Thanks to some of the northwest winds that bring birds our way, birders and banding stations have recently been revealing September’s full range of warblers and related long-distance migrant songbirds, like vireos and flycatchers. Fully 26 species of warbler have been sighted on the Cape so far this month, plus 6 species of vireo, who are relatively drab and stodgy but otherwise warbler-like songbirds. All are heading for somewhere else, anywhere from southeastern U.S. pine flatwoods for a Pine Warbler to Bolivia for a particularly ambitious Connecticut Warbler. Blackpoll Warblers, who may have come from Alaska to fatten up for a non-stop flight to Brazil, are also beginning to show up.

But how can you find and figure out these fall warblers? They can be anywhere there are trees or even at brushy local community gardens. On the Vineyard, especially try the Gay Head Cliffs of Aquinnah some early morning after northwest winds, when reorienting migrants may be pouring in off the water. If you feel overwhelmed, there’s strength in numbers, so join a walk with an organization like Mass Audubon, Cape Cod Bird Club, or your local conservation trust — those in Harwich and Chatham have some good bird offerings. Or sign up for a banding demonstration at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary for a truly intimate look at these tiny wanderers.

So grab those binos, make some excuse to get outside, and mount a search for some of those furtive and flitty, itty bitty little, confusing fall warblers. And don’t feel too bad about mixing them up, I’m sure we all look alike to them, too.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.