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On Spring and the Warbler Obsession

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I’ve seen 31 species of warblers so far this spring, a personal high for me. Where I live, in the western part of North Carolina’s piedmont, it has by all accounts been an exceptional spring for finding them. Add to that local wealth a mid-migration trip to the southern Appalachians where easily missed species Swainson’s, Golden-winged, and Cerulean can be found with relative ease and you have a recipe for a remarkable spring. And the thing is, if I were to completely dip on tanagers, fail at flycatchers, strike out on thrushes, for the rest of the year I would still think back on this spring as a highlight. All because of the warblers.

Palm Warbler, one of the first non-wintering warblers to arrive in my area, photo by Nate Swick

Palm Warbler in Guilford Co, NC, is one of the first non-wintering warblers to arrive in my area

We birders experience a bit of an obsession with the Parulids every year, and the reasons are both obvious and not. No warbler can compete with the haunting songs of any Catharus thrush.  And while some may come close, none that I know in the ABA Area glows from within like a male Scarlet Tanager or Baltimore Oriole. The migrations of shorebirds are more impressive in pure distance. The Empid flycatchers challenge us more thoroughly. The hawks more dramatic in their numbers. But still it’s the warblers that capture us. That we travel to bird festivals specifically to see. That I have tallied so diligently for myself this spring. That truly make or break spring migration for so many birders, particularly in the eastern part of the continent.

Yeah, Northern Parulas are common, but they're also spectacular. Orange Co, NC, photo by Nate Swick

Yeah, Northern Parulas are common, but they’re also spectacular. Orange Co, NC

They’re beautiful, sure. Their migration is remarkable and despite the balance being mostly variations on yellow or brown, many are knock-your-socks-off beautiful. But mostly, there are just so many of them. I’m convinced that the obsession with this family above all this time of year comes from their amazing diversity. And birders, being nothing if not fervent collectors of experiences (for good or ill), are left helpless before the wave of birds.

We gawk at orioles and tanagers. We scratch our heads at flycatchers and thrushes. But we devour warblers, even the dull brown ones, because we gotta get ’em all every year.

It may be more subtle, but it's hardly less desirable. Swainson's Warbler, Transylvania Co, NC, photo by Nate Swick

It may be more subtle, but it’s hardly less desirable. Swainson’s Warbler, Transylvania Co, NC

The next few days will see crowds of birders and flocks of birds descend on Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio for The Biggest Week in American Birding. As with any migrant hotspot, the diversity on the south shore of Lake Erie is impressive. Orioles, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers, nightjars, and more seemingly tangle with each other to get in front of birders binoculars and cameras. I’ve never been (one of these days!), but I understand that the daily onslaught of birds lives up to even the most unreasonable expectations. A rare thing in a world where neotropic migrant population continue to decline. All those birds are fantastic, but it’s the warblers that are the show-stoppers.

It’s the warblers that bring people back again and again to expand their year or state or life lists. It’s the warblers that make High Island and Point Pelee and those myriad little migrant traps out west such well-birded places. All that other stuff is icing, warblers are spring’s meat and potatoes.

I don't always see Canad Warblers in the spring, but I consider myself fortunate to have come across a couple this year. Buncombe Co, NC, photo by Nate Swick

I don’t always see Canada Warblers in the spring, but I consider myself fortunate to have come across a couple this year. Buncombe Co, NC

So 31 for me this year – a new high – and maybe even a couple more before this migration thing is all over. Not that fewer would have made this year a bad spring, but such a smorgasbord absolutely guarantees that this has been a great spring.

How about you?

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog. A long-time member of the bird blogosphere, Nate has been writing about birds and birding at The Drinking Bird since 2007, but can also be found writing regularly at 10,000 Birds. In the non-digital world, he's an environmental educator and interpretive naturalist. Nate lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children, who are not yet aware that they are being groomed to be birders.
Nate Swick

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  • Steve

    Great article Nate! My son and I are heading to Pelee tomorrow, for a week of birding. Funnily enough our ‘record’ for a week at Pelee is 30 warbler species. Hoping this is the year we have a good shot at breaking it and matching your 31!

  • http://www.thermalbirding.com/ Tim Schreckengost

    I just hit 19 for the year in Delaware today. I’m still missing a handful of easy ones…

  • gpike

    I got my life-bird Cerulean this year (I haven’t birded a lot in the Eastern US)! Lots and lots of Palm warblers too – more than I’ve ever seen!

    • http://blog.aba.org/ Nate Swick

      I got my first North Carolina Cerulean this past weekend, a number of them singing along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville. Not only was it fantastic to get eye-level looks at a gorgeous male, but it was wonderful to hear multiple birds singing in the vicinity.

  • Quentin Brown

    Warbler obsession in the east. Warbler envy out here on the west coast! Presently sitting at 6 in Vancouver, Canada, hoping to hit 10. Out today to try and find a Nashville!

    • stephy1771

      I would be lying to say that bird diversity wasn’t a factor when thinking about where to live in the future… Argh, pointy mountains vs. birds!! Unfair choice!

    • http://rarebecomescommon.com/ Josh Adams

      I too used to have a bit of warbler envy. Actually I still do. Here in Washington 9 Warblers is the expected amount, maybe 12 if you travel a bit. I was very jealous until I realized that for all the Warblers we lack, we have some very great birds ourselves. A well traveled birder can expect to get 14 Flycatcher species in Washington in a year, for instance. And the entire eastern half of the continent only gets one Hummingbird species! I do better than that just about every time I bird. Still they are great birds. I went to Belize last March and among all the amazing birds I saw, nothing stands out quite like the Hooded Warblers I saw.

      • http://blog.aba.org/ Nate Swick

        That’s too true. We in the east can’t come close to hummingbird and flycatcher diversity.

  • J.R. Rigby

    33 species so far here in Mississippi. Ceruleans have been abnormally common. We also had a few Golden-winged Warbler at the William Faulkner estate in Oxford, and a Mourning Warbler last week in eastern MS.

  • Nate Dias

    Meh. In my opinion, spring is for shorebirds – fall is for warblers. :-)

    34 shorebird species for me so far this spring – not sure how many warbler species…

    And you would have to pay me a lot to endure human-packed warbler meccas like Magee Marsh, Point Pelee, etc. I go birding to escape humanity!

    • Gregory Bennett

      Amen

    • http://blog.aba.org/ Nate Swick

      Spoken like a true coastal birder!

  • Mary

    31 warblers! Nate! What am I doing sitting here reading this? I need to get back out there and find some more birds! I’ve only got 24, and thought I was doing pretty good. But I’m going to Cape May this weekend, and there’s SW winds Saturday night. Can’t wait to see what blows in!
    I can sleep in June.

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