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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: The palm warbler

I hinted at the notion of failure in last week’s column on the blue-winged teal. This week, I surrender to it. All of my attempts to get photos of green-winged teal failed and the only photo in my archives is simply not publishable. The image clearly shows a green-winged teal, but it is so blurry that it simply will not do.

Yet, there are sometimes rewards for simply trying. I visited my parents last weekend and I had green-winged teal on the brain. I abandoned the family gathering and headed for a wetland area with anyone who was willing to walk and explore with me. Teal were first and foremost on my list of birds to see and I had reports from reliable birders that indicated green-winged teal had been spotted at the location of my destination. The sightings were several days old, but I had to try.

When I arrived, it was clear that I was simply too late. Had I planned my visit during mid-March instead of mid-April, then maybe I’d have had some luck, but the birds were gone. Only a few sporadic sightings along the Connecticut River had been reported and that simply wouldn’t do. Photos taken from a hundred yards away would be useless.

So, as we stood by the marsh and waited in vain for any sign of the teal, we began to notice that there was actually a great deal of activity unfolding around us. Swamp sparrows were singing from the cattails behind us (a species I will describe in detail as soon as I have the photos), tree swallows were fighting over small snags with woodpecker holes in them and all around us was the hustle and bustle of little birds.

Up in the trees, there were many ruby-crowned kinglets singing their wonderful songs. We also managed to spot a collection of yellow-rumped warblers; easy to identify by sight, but their songs are so diabolically confusable that I am of the opinion that the birding gods put them here just to torture us. I even saw a blue-gray gnatcatcher, but that’s a species for another day.

The star of the show was one particular palm warbler that allowed me to get so close to him that I often had to take a few steps back so that my camera could actually focus. It was, hands down, the most amazing experience that I have ever had with a palm warbler and I feel it is a story worth telling.

It was a Sunday morning and I woke up early to take advantage of the low angle of the sun. Others were stirring in the house, but I didn’t linger. I asked my father when brunch was planned, told him where I was headed and then hit the road. Time was precious and the sun was rising quickly.

I headed down to the Norwattuck Rail Trail off Station Road in South Amherst, parked the car and headed west. The sun was to my right and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was one of those mornings when there wasn’t even the slightest hint of a breeze and the steam rising off the ponds was hovering over the water and glowing in the early morning light. It was the perfect morning for birding.

My destination was just a couple hundred yards up the rail trail. I was looking for the brushy margin of the trail just after I emerged in to the open next to the first pond. The eastern end of this spot is marked by a white pine growing at the water’s edge, so when I reached this tree, I stopped and surveyed the brush. And, there he was!

The little male palm warbler had decided to declare ownership of a patch of small trees and shrubs that were growing in a strip of land that was about 50 feet long and 8 feet wide. He was extremely confident in himself and would not tolerate even a hint of invasion in his domain. He was a blur of activity as he foraged for insects, but somehow he was also able to keep track of the boundaries of his little kingdom and would immediately intercept any interlopers and chase them off with tremendous aggression. There was no doubt about it — he was the king!

The little male was almost constantly in motion. He spent most of his time searching the nooks and crannies of the branches and gleaning any insects he could find. In ornithology, we use the word “gleaning” to describe the method of foraging that has small birds picking insects off the surfaces of leaves and twigs. He was very good at it and seemed to find something worth eating every 10 to 20 seconds.

Then, he would suddenly launch himself into the air and go through an impressive array of acrobatic moves in an attempt to capture a flying insect. This is a feeding technique known as “hawking” and it is the main foraging strategy used by birds like phoebes. This guy was simply amazing. He was fast, he was successful and he also seemed very much aware of his own grandeur, for, as he went about his business, he also sang.

The problem with most warbler songs is the fact that they are not easy to describe. At best, one can come up with some phase that matches the pattern of “syllables” in the birds song, but when you deal with a species that doesn’t seem to have any “syllables” in its song, you’re stuck. I looked through many different sources and the best description I found was “a high-pitched series of short zwee-zwee-zwee-zwee-zwee notes.” Thanks a lot, right?

The main reason I wanted to share this experience with you is because I actually did a story on palm warblers in 2013. I mentioned that they would only be here for a short time as they made their way up to their breeding grounds in the tundra region of Canada. I mentioned that they would be fairly easy to find in wetland areas, and I think I may have mentioned that they would be rather approachable birds.

The only problem that I had last year was the fact that the photos I used had been taken down in Florida. To me, this was a valid use of images, but it still left the bird as an entity somewhat remote for the reader: a bird easily seen somewhere else, but not really observable in our area. My experience this past weekend really fixed that.

All you have to do is get in your car, drive to South Amherst, walk a couple hundred yards up the rail trail, and you can see this very bird for yourself. By the time this column is published, there may even be other migrants starting to show up, but there is a very good chance that this particularly “friendly” bird will be doing his thing right out in the open. If he is there, you may be able to get within 6 to 10 feet of him and you’ll have the chance to really learn what this species is like.

If you can’t make the drive to Amherst, then head for the trail along the Turners Falls power canal, or the cattail marsh closest to you. The birds are here and you’ll thank yourself for getting out to see them. If you wait too long, you’ll have to wait until next year to see them.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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