Yes Virginia, there is a Warbler named after you
On Friday, birder Amy O’Neill was in Orleans canvasing a little known conservation area called Putnam Farm. There among plots full of tomatoes and zinneas and assorted weeds she found a little gray bird that would instantly change the weekend plans for hundreds of people. The bird was the mysterious Virginia’s Warbler, and no one had ever seen one in Massachusetts before.
Virginia’s Warblers had been seen in Rhode Island and Maine, where somehow there have been four records. Hell, even Hampton Beach, New Hampshire has a record. As a result, this unlikely find was considered “overdue” for Massachusetts. But how and why a tiny, scarce bird of the southwestern US found its way here is anyone’s guess. Their limited breeding range looks like a paint splatter on a map of the American southwest, where they only occupy dry, mid-elevation oak-conifer forests, then head to southwest Mexico in winter. An odd, isolated population in the Black Hills of South Dakota wasn’t discovered until 1997, but that one is still 1700 miles from here.
Even in high breeding plumage the Virginia’s Warbler is, well, gray. It does maintain the barest minimum of color necessary to maintain its warblerhood in the form of a bit of odd mustardy yellow under the base of the tail and washed across the breast, plus a mostly invisible bit of red on the crown. They rarely stop moving — the Orleans bird required constant narration from whoever had eyes on it so newcomers could get their first look: “it’s in those red leaves behind the shed, now three feet higher, no lower, nope now it’s back in the tomato patch, look for the movement” and so on. This went on for two days, but by Monday it was gone, disappointing many who drove out.
I’m not sure how to explain this compulsion most of us birders have to see a new species, but it’s just like any other human pursuit I suppose – wanting to see new places, meet new people, buy new stuff. Humans crave novelty, and we collect things. Thusly framed, us rare bird chasers seem pretty normal, I reckon. One of the best parts about a bird like this is how it brings birders together. I don’t get out too much or too far these days, but thanks to the Virginia’s Warbler I saw people I hadn’t seen in years, or who I knew in name only. I suspect most of us will go back to birding alone, at least until the next rare bird shows up.
I wasn’t actually alone on my visit with the warbler, as I had the pleasure of leading a group of 10 birders around the Outer Cape this past weekend on a Fall Migration Field School out of Wellfleet Bay sanctuary. We successfully chased the Virginia’s Warbler, but it wasn’t the only bird in town. We also enjoyed a rare close study of an early Common Murre in Wellfleet Harbor - you would normally only see this uncommon puffin cousin at Race Point, and there only in winter.
On a bay beach in Truro, we chased a strange report of a Hudsonian Godwit, a big and rapidly declining sandpiper, and were lucky to spend some time alone with this hard-to-find species. We sat and watched as it ate mole crabs that it pulled from the swash zone, and contemplated its journey — hatched somewhere on Arctic coastal tundra only in June, this half-pound bird has to find its way, alone, to southern South America. It was born with stamina and navigational instincts we have no way to comprehend.
The Cape is on a roll — we’ve produced two state-first records in just the last two months in the form of the Lesser Sand-Plover and this Virginia’s Warbler, and the fall rarity season has barely begun. What will be next? Whatever it is, you should come on out and hang with us birders. We’re a little odd, but who knows, you may decide you’ve found your flock.