Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Confusing Fall Warblers

It really is my first year trying to get a real look at these guys--and confusing they are too. In A Breezy, Birdy Morning I confidently assert that I saw a magnolia warbler, and then confess to seeing a couple of warblers with a flock of ruby-crowned kinglets that I couldn't identify. By the time I finished posting about it for the second time (How Do They Do That?), with the photo-shopped image of the unknown warbler, I had begun to doubt my identification of the magnolia!

This morning, a much better day for finding birds--sunny (until the fog rolled in) and relatively still--I started out by trying to identify a large group of warblers in the yard, and the yard next door. They, or some of them, had a fairly harsh chip of a contact call that filled the air. They were gleaning and flycatching in the tops of the trees, and lower in the shrubs and lilacs. I managed to get a fix on three or four of them at various times, though they were all moving around pretty fast, in and out of foliage. What was obvious was that there was more than one species in the group. Though every one I got a look at had some kind of yellow on it somewhere, and no one seemed to be what one might call green, all were more to the brown than the grey, I think. Every one had a white wing bar or two--on one I noted a fairly heavy slash of white. One had a totally clear yellow breast. So what were they? I am inclined to think that they were a mixed flock of yellow-rumped warblers and magnolia warblers, but I could hardly say why.

I think that I was confident about the earlier magnolia because I saw it where I saw magnolias in breeding plumage in the breeding season, i.e., in the context that I knew them in. I think it's like this: I know a chickadee anywhere I see it because I know the chickadee like I know my brothers. But the birds that are newer to me I know like I know the cashier at the grocery store. I recognize her there, but if I see her shopping at the lumber yard I have enormous difficulty placing her.

I left the confusing warblers and walked out towards the cedar bush. I could hear lots of birds, and when I got to the spot where I saw kinglets last week, there were kinglets! This time, no warblers with them, and no chickadees following me. And this time it was a mixed flock of ten or fifteen ruby-crowned and golden-crowned! How do I know? I don't get to see kinglets all that often, but they are unmistakable in size, form, and behaviour, and there are only two kinds around here (or anywhere?). The two are easy to tell apart, even without the golden and ruby crowns. This group included some crowned individuals of each species.

The place is a copse of willows, shadowed by poplars, at the edge of the swamp around the cedar bush. It's always a likely spot for birds, and I guess it's an attractive spot for kinglets to stop for a snack and a break on their journey.

I continued on mine, and with the kinglets in my head, everything else I saw looked huge. I stared at a cedar waxwing in the top of a tree for many minutes before I could identify it--it just looked so big. Just imagine how the 30 boisterous robins looked, or the gang of flickers. Even the song sparrow looked big to me today. I was also surprised to see it--there have been none around for weeks--and even more surprised to hear it sing. Like the American redstart of a month ago, this sparrow, instead of singing a single signature song, as song sparrows on territory seem to do, was singing a whole medley of tunes.

Sumac turning

The weather promises to hold for a while--maybe tomorrow I'll find a group of warblers I can identify.

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