American Birding Podcast



ICYMI: On Spring and the Warbler Obsession

The ABA Blog has been in existence for almost 6 years, and there’s a lot of good content back in the archives that deserves an audience now that it might not have received way back when. So, semi-regularly we will bring some of that stuff back. Here’s one I wrote a couple years back about spring and warblers.


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?