Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Memorial Day and warblers go together
This year brought especially fine warbler watching weather. Not the heat and wind, but the wet and foggy days, days dominated by low pressure, which means heavier air and more difficult travel conditions for such tiny birds as warblers.
Warblers are strongly linked to Memorial Day in my mind, although this year the association may not be quite so tight. Memorial Day comes late this year, since the last Monday of May, which is designated as Memorial Day, also happens to be the last day of May this year. Memorial Day can occur as early as May 25.
Warblers are late-May migrants. Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, deems May 22 to be the usual peak of warbler migration. Of course, the warbler parade begins some time earlier and continues some days past May 22.
Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Migrants flood the Red River Valley as spring advances The red-bellied woodpecker is not a migrant, however, but a wanderer. This is one of the bird species that has expanded northward from the southeastern United States.
Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Sapsuckers have unique role in nature The sapsucker is a smallish woodpecker, bigger than a downy woodpecker but smaller than a hairy woodpecker.
Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Migration parade continues with sparrows White-crowned sparrows passing through our area are bound for northern Canada and Alaska, where they nest north of the tree line.
This year brought especially fine warbler watching weather. Not the heat and wind, but the wet and foggy days, days dominated by low pressure, which means heavier air and more difficult travel conditions for such tiny birds as warblers, most of which are smaller than house sparrows.
So, the warblers pause in their northward push to rest and refuel. Sometimes, this causes an astonishing abundance of birds of many different species. These special events are known among birders as “warbler falls” or “fallouts.”
Not only warblers are affected by such conditions. Rose-breasted grosbeaks and Baltimore orioles were more abundant than in usual migration periods, as well.
But the warbler falls are especially notable because warblers are so colorful and there are so many different kinds of them, and because in most seasons, they tend to breeze right by.
Adam Chambers, a local birder, experienced such a fall on May 19, a little before the expected peak of warbler migration. He saw 15 species in about four hours along English Coulee north of the UND Wellness Center – prime habitat for migrant warblers. That amounts to 60% of warbler species on the Grand Forks County checklist.
For me, the most notable sighting was the Blackburnian warbler. “I was hoping I wouldn’t miss out on one of these,” he wrote.
The Blackburnian warbler is a stunner. It’s nicknamed “Fire Throat” because of its brilliance, which extends beyond the throat onto the face and the upper belly. Otherwise, the bird is a patchwork of black and white. The large white patches in its wings add to the effect.
This is the species that I associate most closely with Memorial Day. The first Blackburnian warbler I ever saw was on a raining Memorial Day morning soon after Suezette and I moved to Grand Forks. There was a flowering crabapple tree in the backyard just outside the window beside my desk. I had extraordinarily close views. I was spellbound.
As I’ve written previously, I try not to pick favorites among the birds, but seeing a Blackburnian warbler is always a thrill. This is not a common species here; the checklists rate it as rare in spring, occasional in summer and uncommon in fall – and often overlooked, since it has shed its brilliance by the time the warbler moves south.
Blackburnian warblers nest nearby, in forested regions of Minnesota and in southern Manitoba and Ontario. In the United States, the bird’s nesting range extends across the Midwest and New England and in the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia. The birds encountered here are on their way to Canada. In the fall, they’re bound for Venezuela and Colombia.
Chambers didn’t hesitate to name his favorites. Of magnolia warblers, he noted, “These are my favorites, and there were many of them.” Later, he named “my other favorite, Canada warbler.”
He also listed ovenbird, northern waterthrush, black-and-white warbler, Tennessee warbler, Nashville warbler, mourning warbler, common yellowthroat, American redstart, yellow warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, blackpoll warbler and Wilson’s warbler.
The county checklist runs to 25 species. Only four have been confirmed as nesting here, yellow warbler, American redstart, common yellowthroat and black-and-white warbler. Two other species are regarded as likely nesters, ovenbird and northern waterthrush.
It’s likely that the most numerous warbler species in migration are Tennessee warbler and yellow-rumped warbler. The yellow-rumped warbler is the earliest migrant among the warblers, usually passing through in April or early May. Tennessee warblers, which are among the least conspicuous of warblers, reach their migration peak in late May.
As for the Blackburnian warbler: The species passes through every spring, but you can’t count on seeing one. If conditions are right for migration, they pass on by. A persistent low-pressure system will stop them, and that’s the weather to watch for Blackburnian warblers.
As for the rather pretentious sounding name: This warbler is named for Anna Blackburne, an English naturalist who died in 1798.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.