Writing against a midweek deadline for weekend publication presents hazards for a columnist, whether writing about birds or politics. With politics, bets can be hedged, but birds press on against their own deadlines, and sometimes the subject of a column has passed through the area before this column can report it.

There is a hedge, however, and that is to anticipate what might show up.

I’ve raised the stakes, choosing a spectacular bird, but a rare one here. The Blackburnian warbler is among two dozen species of warblers that occur in our area. The second half of May is the peak of warbler season and, for me, the Blackburnian warbler has a strong association with Memorial Day.

I first saw this bird on the first Memorial Day we lived in Grand Forks, in the early 1980s. It was a damp and chilly morning, with light rain – the sort of weather that discourages outdoor activity among humans while making migration tough for birds. Such weather often causes small birds to interrupt their migration, sometimes resulting in what birding enthusiasts call “falls.”

That’s unlikely next week; the weather forecast is for generally fair weather. Birds make good progress in such weather, especially if the wind is from the south or southeast, as it has been this week. It’s possible that the birds have already blown by.

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Still, it’s worth being on the lookout.

Warblers are small birds, and they are often hard to see. What’s more, many are confusingly similar. Others are recognizable on sight.

The Blackburnian warbler is one of the most visible and most recognizable species, but it is a treetop dweller, so seeing it means craning your neck to search through emerging foliage. My Blackburnian was at the top of a flowering tree just level with an upstairs window. I had remarkably good views of the bird; it was the best of several sightings of this local rarity.

The Blackburnian warbler nests in evergreen forests. Its range extends from northern Georgia to the Maritime provinces of Canada and westward past the Great Lakes, through northern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota northwestward to east central Saskatchewan and isolated places in Alberta. In Manitoba, it is known to nest on Hecla Island in Lake Winnipeg, at Victoria Beach and Whiteshell Provincial Park. The nesting range extends as far west as Itasca State Park in Minnesota.

This range is “warbler country.” Many of the so-called “New World” warblers share the same geography. They occupy different niches, separating “ecologically by foraging areas,” as the American Ornithologist Union’s monograph puts it in “The Birds of North America” series.

To be truthful, the Blackburnian warbler is among the least likely warblers to be seen here. The county checklist rates it “rare.”

The species is obscure in other ways, as well. It is named for Anna Blackburne, an English naturalist, I read in “The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds.” Wikipedia told me that she specialized in insect collecting. She died in 1793.

A widely used nickname better suits the bird. “Fire throat” describes its most apparent attribute, bright orange plumage on its neck and front. There is a triangular mask on the yellow cheeks, a black cap on the head and striking black and white patches and bars on the back and wings.

This makes the Blackburnian warbler easy to recognize, even if it is rare and hard to find in the treetops.

Most of the 25 warbler species that occur here are migrants; the county checklist includes only six nesting species. The yellow warbler is the most abundant of these, often occurring in backyards. “Yellow warbler” is a descriptive name. The bird is yellow all over, with some reddish streaks on the belly. Other local nesters are the black-and-white warbler, also descriptively named, the American redstart and the common yellowthroat.

The yellow warbler favors low shrubbery, but it’s not a ground-hugging bird. The redstart might be considered an “edge species,” occupying the outer limits of forested areas. An active bird, its name derives from the red flashes in its wings and tail as it flits along about head height – human head high. The yellowthroat is a wetland bird often occurring in emergent vegetation, including cattail patches.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs