Weather-wise, this has been a pretty good month, if that month were February. But hopefully, now that it’s mid-May, most of the snow and multi-day wind storms are behind us, so we can focus on what’s important right now. And what’s important right now is warblers.
Each year, beginning in late April, members of this group of mostly colorful, typically tuneful songbirds begins trickling north. Some species in this varied group winter as far away as Bolivia, while others, like some Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers toughed it out in your neighborhood, probably hitting your suet feeder when they needed some extra calories to get through the night. Some are relatively drab and boring, like Palm Warblers, but most species have some kind of fancy and colorful breeding plumage that keeps us coming back for more.
A few species stay and breed here on the Cape and Islands, and those are already back and breeding. These include the Pine Warbler and Ovenbirds singing throughout our pine oak woods and Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers in wet thickets and marsh edge, plus the Prairie Warbler, denizen of powerlines and red cedar thickets, where it sings its chromatic scales all day long. But most of the over thirty species that pass through the region each spring keep going, moving on to richer forests north and west of our scrubby sandbox of an archipelago. This means you have two or three weeks, at most, to get your fill of your favorite warblers.
Some are serious eye candy, like the sought after Blackburnian and Bay-breasted Warblers, both of which may come through your neighborhood if you have well-budded and flowering oaks over the next week or two. Others you might describe as “handsome”, like the Canada Warbler, with its blue-gray mantle offset by bright yellow spectacles and underparts and a dark “necklace” of black spots. You probably won’t see this bird in your yard but if you hit it right you could see a few in the nearest swampy woods, like those of the Beech Forest in Provincetown.
Here on the Cape, Black Oaks tend to be the most important tree for attracting migrant warblers. Their amber flowers and budding leaves are conspicuous right now, and are weeks ahead of those of the slower White Oaks. Oaks, along with especially cherries, birches, and willows, host an incredible diversity and abundance of the most important food for warblers and other songbirds, and that’s the larvae of legions of anonymous little moths. Soft-bodied and easy to find and digest, these nutrient rich caterpillars, many are those you might call “inchworms”, give their lives by the trillions that birds and their chicks may live, though not willingly, I suspect.
Lots of other things are going on right now, from super rare birds like Purple Gallinule and Swallow-tailed Kite showing up, to Mass Audubon’s annual Bird-a-thon fundraiser coming up this weekend in its exciting new socially distanced, zero carbon form. But in Mid-May, the young (and old) birder’s fancy turns to warblers. To see them, focus your efforts on higher ground covered in oaks, which often catch the eye of newly arrived migrants coming in off the water, as well as rich swampy woods. Even cemeteries with lots of flowering trees and suburban neighborhood will do in pinch. Just don’t blink and miss your chance to get your fill of the spring warblers, those fleeting, flitting jewels of the trees.