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Where are all the warblers?

Blackburnian Warbler
Ryan Schain
Blackburnian Warbler

When did your “spring is finally here” birds arrive? At my house, spring came Monday, April 29. Suddenly the yard was loud with calls of Baltimore Oriole, catbirds, Great-crested Flycatchers, and House Wrens, none of which had been there the day before. I didn’t see my first hummingbird until the 4th, a typical date but a full week later than some years. These backyard breeders are all reliable, returning over the same one week span each year regardless of weather. But I can’t help feeling like spring still hasn’t hit its full stride, because the eagerly anticipated migrants, the living jewels we mostly only get to see for two weeks each May, haven’t materialized – I’m still waiting for the warblers.

Warblers are a colorful band of New World songbirds that, on average, are about 5” long, feed mainly on insects, breed in northern woodlands, and leave North America completely in winter. Save for a few species, they don’t breed here, continuing on to central and western MA at the closest, or more likely boreal Canada. So each spring we Cape and Islanders get a few weeks to catch a glimpse of a Blackburnian, Cape May, Bay-breasted or Canada Warbler arrayed in their breeding finery, burning brightly in various shades of yellow, orange, chestnut, and blue.

Warblers and other migrant songbirds migrate at night, taking advantage of cooler, less turbulent air and fewer predators. Come morning, they have a choice to make – keep going, or drop in somewhere to feed and rest. Most of the long-distance migrant songbirds, the ones coming back from Central and South America, prefer to stay inland when they come back north – as we know all too well, coastal areas are cooler in spring with later leaf out and insect emergence times, plus the chance of getting blown out over the water. So if you want to see lots of warblers, tanagers, buntings, flycatchers, and other spring transients in May, you’re actually better off heading to Ohio.

Don’t fret - usually we get enough westerly winds to bring us a modest measure of migrants, giving local birders their warbler fix. As we approach the peak of spring migration in the next couple of weeks, many of these birders are checking Cornell’s BirdCast migration forecasts like most people check the weather. Despite the remarkable technology and algorithms behind Cornell’s website, around here, the predictions are about as accurate as our 7-day weather forecasts, which is to say, not. Case in point, Monday night – based in part on actual radar data, BirdCast reported high bird traffic overhead that night, over 700,000 birds, but Tuesday morning did not produce a slew of newly arrived birds. A single Black-and-white Warbler in my neighbor’s yard was the only obvious new arrival I saw all day, across multiple towns.

Many of us are hoping for a songbird fallout ahead of this weekend’s Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon competition/fundraiser. To supplement BirdCast, I love the animated wind models at Windy.com. Using that site, I’ll now give you my bird forecast for the rest of the week – let’s call it MarkCast. The northeast winds predicted from Thursday onwards will shut down migration completely for Bird-a-thon, but there is some hope for Wednesday night, with southwest winds predicted over a broad area to our south that should encourage some restless birds to lift off and head our way, barring any rain. Any that get caught over the water could end up here Thursday morning, especially if they encounter any rain bands. So let’s call Thursday cool and cloudy with a chance of warblers.

So let’s hope we wake up to a Thursday full of warbler songs we haven’t heard in a year and those furtive little flashes of orange, blue and yellow darting among the brown buds of the oaks. But don’t complain to me if that doesn’t happen (legal disclaimer: MarkCast is not responsible for your birding disappointments.)

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.