Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: May correctly called 'month of the warbler'

STACEY COLE May 10. 2013 9:53PM

Warblers, tiny woodland sprites that have an almost phantom-like behavior, are often heard before they are seen.

Thus, I have always believed that "warbler-watchers" are detectives at heart. It has been frequently stated that warblers arrive in waves, but I am never sure when the so-called "spring wave" of warblers will begin. However, generally one can say that May has been correctly referred to as the "month of the warbler."

As a young birder in the 1930s, I came to believe that the so-called "warbler wave" occurred between the first and tenth of May. Those dates are usually quite accurate, as the bulk of the warbler migration occurs most frequently in early to mid-month. From my experience, there are a few warbler species that usually appear from mid to late April. These include the pine, palm, yellow-rumped, and black and white.

On these birds, Roger Tory Peterson has authored:

"Warblers are brightly colored active birdlets, usually smaller than sparrows with thin needle-pointed bills. The majority have some yellow. Identification in Autumn is often difficult."

With respect to Peterson's last point, he is absolutely correct, as that is the season when many species nearly duplicate their costume. Thus, fall becomes their season when the term "detective" becomes most appropriate.

Wood warblers are more often heard before they are seen. As the spring leaves grow larger, these diminutive creatures become even more difficult to see. I considered it a good day when I observed as many as a half-dozen species.

One gets fleeting glimpses mostly, as these insect eaters flit rapidly from place to place in their search for a feast.

Whenever a warbler catches my eye, I find it takes a quick hand to raise and focus my binoculars before the bird has once more concealed itself.

One of the best ways I have found to identify warblers is by learning their songs. However, I must confess that before going out warbler hunting each season, I'd spend some time refreshing my "ear." There really are so few days that make up the spring warbler season, that one should refresh one's recollection of warbler notes and phrases.

If the voice quality of this group of birds that are called "warblers" had been considered when they were so named, the word warbler probably would not have been used.

"Taking note of this," Hal H. Harrison in his book, "Wood Warblers' World," published by Simon and Schuster, New York, wrote: "Actually, the word warbler is a misnomer for the American group. The Random House Dictionary defines warble as 'to sing with trills' and indicated that the word is derived from the English word werble, meaning a tune. As you may have concluded by now most of our warblers do not warble.

The males all sing, but not always well. They lisp, buzz, hiss, chip, rollick, or zip; and one, the Yellow-breasted chat, may chuckle, hoot, whistle, caw and screech."

With the exception of a very few, such as the Louisiana waterthrush, they are not even good singers. However, several of the warbler songs are quite distinctive. As an example, both the black-throated green and the black-throated blue have buzzy songs while others shout as does the ovenbird. Many warbler songs are slurred, while a few, like the black and white warbler, are mere whispers.

In New England, we have two warblers that are named waterthrushes. In New Hampshire, the Louisiana waterthrush is more frequently found in the southern part of our state, while the northern waterthrush is most often seen farther north. In my infrequent spring sightings of the Louisiana waterthrush, I have found them walking and teetering alongside a rushing brook. Although loud, "musical" would be the term I'd use to describe its voice. F. Schuyler Mathews wrote in his book, "Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music," published by G. Putnam's Sons in 1904: "The song of the Louisiana Waterthrush is extraordinarily wild and reverberant; it may be heard under favorable conditions at a distance of quite a third of a mile. The general rhythm is like that of its northern relation's song with a few more notes added - at least that is my impression so far as I can sum up their comparative length."

Some warbler songs have been translated into words to help with easier identification. For example: "I am la-zy," says the black-throated blue. The handsome chestnut-sided warbler is purported to say: "I wish to see Miss Beecher!," or "Please, Please, Pleased ta meetcha!" The common yellow-throated repeats "Witchity-witchity-witchity-witch." And the ovenbird shouts, "Teacher!, Teacher! Teacher!"

Although it can be quite a challenge, it is fun to see how many species of warblers you can "catch" each spring.

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey 03446.

Nature Talks

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