Warbler education is a refreshing scenery change

Published 10:04 am Friday, May 20, 2011

It was one of those days when it’s not clear if it’s too warm for a coat but too breezy and moist to not wear a coat, especially with gray skies threatening rain. Maybe a good day for greening up lawns but not for bird-watching.

But it was bird-watching we had in mind, and we were pulling into the Nature Center parking lot at 6:30 a.m. to join in one of a series of bird-watching walks that the local Audubon chapter was sponsoring.

Although my wife and I both enjoy having birds visit the feeders near our house, we really don’t know much about them. Besides a few obvious species such as cardinals, geese, robins and crows, we don’t get much past noting that one winged visitor or another is particularly bright or interesting.

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It turns out we picked a good day to begin learning a little more.

May is the period when the widely varied New World warblers pass through Austin. After wintering in South America, the Caribbean and other warm places, warblers migrate over the course of a couple weeks north to their summer breeding grounds. Traveling at night, warblers spend their days in wooded area along their route, resting and feeding. A few end their trek in northernmost Minnesota, but many continue on well into Canada.

Small, active birds, warblers are not easy for the uninitiated to distinguish. They’re hard to get a good look at and many species seem to look much like the next. But some are spectacularly beautiful.

During last week’s walk, our guides pointed out a dozen warbler species as they flittered about in the treetops, visible because the leaves hadn’t yet popped out. We saw the Tennessee warbler, orange-crowned warbler, Nashville warbler, yellow warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, magnolia warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, Blackburnian warbler, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, ovenbird and common yellowthroat.

Interestingly, because these birds are very unlikely to nest here, the species visible here one day could be gone and replaced by a new batch the next.

Of course, there were also many other birds showing off their plumage at the Nature Center. Besides the pedestrian mallard and Canada goose, we saw — or, more accurately, had pointed out to us — a great blue heron, chimney swifts, a ruby-throated hummingbird, downy woodpecker and a hairy woodpecker.

The bluebird, perched on a bare stem in a prairie area near the parking lot, was the most perfect blue one could ever hope to see, and the bluejay was not far behind.

Rounding out the day’s list were the eastern phoebe, crows, robins, a house wren, a tree swallow, a black-capped chickadee, goldfinches, a gray catbird, a rose-breasted grosbreak, cardinals, a Baltimore oriole, red-winged blackbirds and a brown-headed cowbird.

Although there have not been many warm, pleasant days in the past week, we did bring our new experience home, where we have noted far more species in and around the yard than we had ever recognized before. And while we couldn’t make a solid identification of the warblers we saw in the trees nearby, we now at least recognize them as warblers and we were inspired to pull out the boys’ small binoculars so that they, too, can have their eyes opened to nature’s variety.

Just about the time one starts feeling old and jaded, a whole new world opens up.