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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Birding Has Never Been So Black and White

Ever since James got home from college, I’ve been promising him migrant lifers. It shouldn’t be too hard – after all, I’m hearing reports from all across the state with great warbler lists, but for some reason all I can muster is a Black-throated Blue here and a Chestnut-sided there. So, yesterday morning, we made the decision to rectify our previous mistakes and go after something sure-fire. As we rounded the turn at Mapleview Farms, I could see a large flock of birds rising from the tall grass and circling back down again.

That awkward moment when you try and exit the car before it's stopped moving...

Success! I’d finally found James his lifer Bobolinks, a species of blackbird that only seems to grace our state about one week a year before heading for northern climes. Unfortunately, the Bobolinks kept their distance, and refused to venture closer than a few hundred feet. Although I was momentarily distracted by a Northern Waterthrush sounding like a Yellow Warbler doing a Lauren Bacall impression, and a pair of mating Orchard Orioles, the allure of Bobolinks and their astromech-like song kept me totally engrossed.

Between the weird light and the wheat, this shot looks like a painting - but no filters were used!

Because we’d found the Bobolinks so quickly, we had a couple hours to kill. So, we headed to Mason Farm because… why not? James was particularly interested because he’d heard there’d been tons of a certain zebra-striped warbler reported recently, and it’s kind of a nemesis bird for him. Alas, upon arrival, we couldn’t turn up much, although singing Scarlet Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles were pretty cool. True to form, the uber-friendly Yellow-breasted Chat was back at his post, although in much worse light this time.

I can't believe it's gotten to the point where I can be picky about my chat shots!

Along the way, we met a pair of Dutch birders, one of whom I’d met several years prior, and distinctly remembered showing his lifer Black-throated Blue Warbler. It was really cool to show them relatively common species like Northern Waterthrush and Prairie Warbler and have them truly appreciate the birds we take for granted. I’m sure I’ll feel the same way next time I’m in Europe and gush when somebody shows me a Chaffinch or White Wagtail. While these days I force the harsh calls of Summer Tanagers into the deep recesses of my subconscious so I can listen for something more interesting, the foreign birders made a point of tracking it down and watching it in all its crimson beauty.

That's not to say I don't like Summer Tanagers, it's just they're incredibly common during the
warmer months of the year... dang, what're those called again...

After a birding with them for a bit, we split up so that James and I could focus on the more productive canal section of the trail, turning up things like Acadian Flycatcher and Blue Grosbeak. When we met up again on the other side, I asked them if they’d seen anything, and they replied positively: a Black-and-white Warbler, just after we parted ways. This is, of course, James’s number one nemesis bird, so together we headed way back on the other side of the trail to see if it still remained. That’s when I heard a distinctive squeaky undulating call coming from the stand of trees just in front of us. A nemesis awaits!

Next to the branch with the leaves on it. No, the other branch! No, wrong tree!

We ran over to the sound, and it kept calling right above us. I couldn’t see it, and James was getting frustrated – clearly there were too many leaves between us and the warbler. That’s when one of the Dutchmen shouted “I’ve got it!” and pointed it out, sitting in the crook of a branch invisible from underneath. Unlike its normal behavior, the Black-and-white Warbler sat there preening for several minutes, occasionally pausing to give a couple squeaks, but never crawling along the branches like they usually do.

Sweet relief! This is a bird James has wanted pretty much since he started birding.

James felt elated and thanked the birders for their help. “It’s funny,” one of them said in response. “After all the new birds people have shown us here, this is the first time I’ve shown an American his life bird!” Truer words were never spoken, and again we parted ways so they could bird their way back to their car.

We drove past them on the way out, and asked again if they’d seen anything. “A Wilson’s Warbler,” they said. A potential lifer for me, but we could never relocate it. I’m still reeling from missing that bird. Man, those guys are good!

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