Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Which warbler?


For a few weeks in March it seemed that everywhere I walked in Howarth Park I heard a bird singing a loud, trilling song, often from trees right in front of me. I'd scan the canopy with my binoculars yet never was able to see the singer. When I'm patient I usually can solve the little mysteries that I come across as I wander about the woods and meadows in the park. So, I kept trying to find the trilling bird and, near the end of the month, as I watched several species of birds flitting madly through some oaks, I again heard the song that had been haunting me. At first, as usual, I was unable to find the singer and then I spotted him perched at the top of a tree. He preened for a bit, giving me time to make some sketches and then was gone.

Once home, I began looking through my field guides and listening to sound samples at the Macaulay Library. I was certain of my identification of Wilson's warbler (Cardellina pusilla) and made notes on my sketch. A little over a week later, as I prepared to publish a post about my abilities at bird identification, I revisited the information I'd found about the warbler and began to realize I'd been, perhaps, a bit too hasty in my identification. My heart sank as I flipped through the warbler pages in my Sibley guide and saw that there were at least two other possibilities. Even more discouraging,  I couldn't quite remember the song and when I listened to all three birds they sounded terribly alike. I've been trying to work out ways to make better notes about bird song and this just emphasized the need.

I've almost certainly ruled out Wilson's warbler now. The male bird has very distinctive markings, including a very black cap. My bird had none. I would be surprised to find that this bird was a female. He sang like a fellow telling the world that he was ready to go forth and procreate and that he'd found the place to do so. If he'd been a Yellow warbler I would've seen some bright red stripes on his manly breast. An Orange-crowned warbler would've had dingy stripes on his.

Well, maybe the females are the territorial singers in one of these species. Maybe the light or my own sloppiness kept me from seeing important details that would've helped me identify that darned bird. If I'd had more ability to make notes about bird song, I might've been able to narrow that down. Maybe the bird had a cap and I just couldn't see it. Well, you get the idea. Sometimes you can convince yourself that you're really brilliant and other times you learn that it just isn't so. Not at all.

I haven't heard that song in the past week, leading me to believe that the unknown warbler has probably found a mate and gotten down to the business of procreating. No more need for loud and glorious song. Maybe next year I'll have learned enough to name that bird. In the meantime, patience and humility, patience and humility, patience and...

Here are some links to information about the birds I think are the most likely suspects:
Yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia)
Orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata)
Wilson's warbler (Cardellina pusilla)

2 comments:

  1. Well I was reading along, thinking how clever you are Debbie. I've never been able to identify different Northern birds by their songs, apart from Collared Doves and Blackbirds. I have two bird apps on my various digital devices and a couple of computers with very good search engines. So I'm relieved to learn it's really not that easy after all!
    I love your sketches and the notes.

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  2. In Pennsylvania an early trilling warbler is almost certainly a Pine Warbler. They've just been through here and probably are about finished. I'm not sure if they're in CA but my guess is that they are. They can be quite varied in color so they can be tricky. There were recently a lot of good photos at10000 Birds. Learning warblers is if not a life-long endeavor at least a very long one. We're well into our second decade now, and that's just on the eastern ones.

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