The Recorder – Speaking of Nature: The blackpoll warbler: Yet another gift from the gods

I can tell you without hesitation that I didn’t want to get out of bed. It was a Sunday, I’d had a long week at school, and my bed was so soft and warm that I felt like I could sleep for several more hours without a problem. The problem was the fact that the weather outside was perfect. The sky was clear, the temperature was around 50 degrees and there wasn’t even a hint of a breeze; perfect conditions for bird watching and photography. So sleeping in really wasn’t an option.

I stumbled out into the kitchen, turned on the coffee maker, and then stumbled over to the couch, where I settled into a different kind of comfort. At this point I reconsidered my decision to wake up. Would it really be that terrible if I just lay back on the pillows and fell asleep? Before I indulge in the solace, I decided to check out BirdCast, an online bird tracking tool sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The radar map showed millions of birds had migrated during the night and most of the activity was in the northeast. Sleeping in really wasn’t an option.

I poured my coffee, changed into my field clothes, grabbed my hat, a small bag of birdseed and my camera and headed out the door. The sun was just rising as I walked down the hill to the path across my meadow, and in a short time I was at my thinking chair. The previous day’s high humidity caused a fair amount of dew to fall during the night and my pants were liberally soaked in cold water, but the cheerfulness of the tits that awaited me was the perfect antidote to mild physical ailments. As I sat down, I was surrounded by tits, titmice and song sparrows, all looking forward to my arrival because I’m bringing breakfast.

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Once settled, I set about the task of assessing the bird community around me. All the ‘regulars’ were present, but I was looking for the ‘irregulars’, the migrants who might be landing right now to rest and eat after a long night flight. The vast majority of the birds I was likely to see would be warblers, but exactly what types of warblers were was a mystery. This makes bird watching so much fun!

While thinking about the possibilities, I also made a short wish list in my head. This was not a list of species but a list of potential perches for these species to land on and pose for photos. Directly in front of me, just across the path that I am tending with my mower, was a small patch of silky dogwood bushes with beautiful berries that were in perfect condition. Directly to the left of this were two common spurge plants, whose leaves had turned as yellow as ripe bananas. Much to the left was a patch of mottled alder bushes with several exposed branches ideal for photography. These are my premium wish list items, but birds rarely use them. Nevertheless, it is worth investing the time to take the chance that the long shot will be realized.

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About 40 minutes into my two-hour observation session, I was literally crawling with chickadees. They landed on my hat to examine the seeds I placed there, they landed on my knee to poke through another seed pile, and a curious person landed on top of my camera to see what was up with it was on him. There is something magical about being eye to eye with a chickadee and my morning would have been perfect if it had ended there, but things were about to improve in the most magical way. If you think of bird watching as you would a slot machine, you have the right idea. I was about to hit the jackpot.

In the midst of the flock of tits, I noticed that an unfamiliar bird had landed in the silky dogwood bush right in front of me. Of course the bird was at the back of the bush but I could tell right away that it was a warbler and that it wasn’t one of the young yellowthroats that were in the meadow all year round. This was definitely one of the “irregulars” I’ve been waiting for.

I quietly whispered an appeal to the photo gods. “Okay Nikonus, let’s go,” and just like that, the bird moved from the lower back of the dogwood to the upper front of the dogwood, where it stopped right next to some of those exquisite berries. Everything after that went perfectly. The camera focused quickly, the light was ideal, the camera settings were spot on and the resulting photos were magical. The only problem was that I couldn’t immediately identify the bird. That was a “dizzying fall warbler!”

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With a little help from my brother (one of my favorite bird friends) and my Sibley Guide to Birds, we quickly found an identification. This was a first year juvenile Reed Warbler (Setophagastriata). The identification is very precise and wordy because the confusing Yellow Warbler category is such a frustrating mess. The young birds often only bear a slight resemblance to the adults and can drive you crazy. Luckily, years of experience and a flock of friendly tits saved me from such agony. Finally, I walked back to the house with a smile on my face and a fulfilling sense of accomplishment in my heart. Definitely better than sleeping in.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and wildlife photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more information, visit his website at or visit Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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