Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: In May, you can be a bird detective

By STACEY COLE May 05. 2017 9:41PM
An adult female Canada warbler perches in a bush with its transmitter antenna showing at Bear Pond Natural Area in Canaan. (Courtesy/Jim Block Photography/Union Leader File Photo)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, May 12, 2007.

THE DAYS OF MAY are special on our bird calendar because of the many species of wood warblers that we expect to discover flitting through the trees and bushes that border brook banks, woodland edges and fence rows.

These delightfully colored wood sprites offer a unique opportunity for folks to become “bird detectives.” The elusive behavior and frequently whispered, buzzy songs of most wood warblers offer a stimulating and oftentimes difficult challenge.

Warblers are more often heard before they are seen. As the leaves grow larger these diminutive creatures become even more difficult to see. I consider it a good day if I observe as many as a half dozen species, fleeting glimpses mostly, for these insect eaters flit rapidly from place to place in their search for edibles. And when a warbler does catch my eye, I find it takes a quick hand to raise and focus my binoculars before it has once more concealed itself.

Although warblers are not the easiest of birds to identify, many of our other spring migrants are not nearly as difficult. For example, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, bobolinks and mallard ducks, to name a few. In any case, if one is interested in calling the birds they see by their correct names and other helpful hints on bird watching, such is offered in a book published by Houghton Mifflin. As an almost lifelong bird watcher, I found it fascinating reading.

The title is an intriguing one: “Good Birders Don’t Wear White.” Within this 5-by-7-inch, 268-page paperback book, 50 of North America’s most well known birders offer helpful tips to those less experienced in what has become perhaps the most popular sport in the country today, bird watching. Of these essay contributors, Don and Lillian Stokes, David Allen Sibley, Ken Kaufman, Bill Thompson, III and Julie Zickefoose are perhaps the most well known. However, I wish to note that each of the other contributors offer knowledgeable information within their selected subjects. Also included are 25 sometimes hilarious black-and-white drawings by artist Robert Braunfield.

The title of the book was taken from Sheri Williamson’s essay on how to choose your bird watching wardrobe.

Upon occasion the book does offer some differing viewpoints. Ken Kaufman, field guide creator, points out with good humor that readers should take any advice offered with “a grain, and perhaps even a full shaker of salt.”

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One of the joys of bird watching is the discovery of a new or “life” bird. Such was the case noted in an April 24 letter from one of our Bennington readers that read: “I am thrilled to report I had a black-headed grosbeak at 7:15 a.m. today. Couldn’t believe my eyes! Thought it was an oriole at first. It was on the ground. I was just about to put my feeders out. He stayed only about five minutes. I’ve waited 79 years for this!”

Black-headed grosbeaks are indeed a rarity in our Granite State. In a phone call to Becky Soumala, N.H. Audubon biologist and keeper of state bird records, I learned that the last black-headed grosbeak reported in New Hampshire was Oct. 31, 2003, in Derry. It was photographed at a bird feeder where it spent a few days. Prior to that time one had been reported in 1985.

According to Ken Kaufman in his “Field Guide to Birds of North America,” black-headed grosbeaks are fairly common in summer in oak woods, canyons and riverside trees of the West. It’s very rare to stray in the East. Sometimes interbreeds with rose-breasted grosbeaks along rivers on Great Plains.

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Some time ago an interesting letter was received from a Peterborough couple that read: “We read with interest your column about the pileated woodpecker.

“We have logged many sightings of this bird with over 60 years of birding under our belts, but there have been only two occasions when two pileated woodpeckers were seen together. One occurred at Highlands Hammock State Park near Sebring, Fla., where we camped many times in the winter.

“We were enjoying an early morning walk through the cypress swamp when a pileated was seen on a fallen tree. As I was busy taking photos, another pileated flew in close enough to photograph both of them together. What a thrill that was! This was a treasured photo until it was overshadowed by another twosome I photographed in the Watchung Nature Reserve in New Jersey. Again, on one of our Echo Lake Bird Club early morning spring bird walks, we came across a nesting pileated woodpecker.

“I returned to the spot with my trusty tripod and long lens and I was well rewarded.”

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at

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