Watching Warblers

I’m fighting the temptation to bird ‘off-patch’. Like many, maybe most, birders these days, I get regular electronic communication telling me what’s been seen in my area, and regardless of how many times and years I’ve seen the spring migrants, there is part of me that wants to rush off and look for that singing prairie warbler that’s only a few kilometres away from my patch.

So far, I’ve resisted, reminding myself that that’s not why or how I want to bird any longer. The new patch is already giving up a few of its more superficial secrets, the tree that held last year’s Baltimore oriole nest, visible in the bare branches, now hosting a singing male; the tall maples that divide the arboretum from the golf course revealing that they’re a good place to find warbling vireo at this time of year. I know now where to look for porcupine, and white-tailed deer, and the area where the broad-winged hawks might be nesting. Two mornings ago I watched a mink hunting along the logs and roots of the fallen trees in the maple swamp, strongly suggesting that my guess as it as the gosling-killer was correct. None of the paired and probably nesting waterfowl of the maple swamp have babies; I think the mink is very well fed.

Some of what I’ve ‘learned’ comes simply from experience: I can guess at the thickets that will hold catbirds, the white pine stands that pine warblers will trill from, the grassland perches that should (and did, today) provide a vantage point for eastern kingbirds; I understand just enough of the biology and ecological needs of these birds to see what areas of the arboretum should meet those needs. But I have to be careful not to assume, to overlook the factors I don’t see or understand, or I’ll end up missing not just birds, but missing a thread – or many threads – in the woven pattern of life on these four hundred acres.

At the eastern end of Wild Goose Woods an old fence line runs between two fields, one a research and propagation area, one an old-field community of dogwood and grassland for the first half, and then a managed, groomed area of arboretum plantings. A double line of bushes has grown over the old fence, providing good cover. The fence line ends at a small evergreen woodland, under-planted to rhododendrons, and separated from the managed area by a small stream. In that woodland, yesterday morning, a feeding flock of warblers was passing through: two Nashville, three yellow-rumped, and five bay-breasted.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Five bay-breasted! I watched them for a quarter of an hour, listening to their contact calls, following them along the branches and logs where they fed.

This morning I am asking the questions I should have asked yesterday – why didn’t I keep following the flock? Where did they go, once they moved through the rhododendron wood? Did they disperse, flying over the open ground studded with trees between this wood and Victoria Woods, 300 meters away? Did they follow the line of evergreens that screens the research area and then disperse? I lost a chance to understand better, still in the birding mode of too many years: tick the species, move on.

Next time – if there is another feeding flock – I will follow, if I can.

Bay Breasted Warbler photo: By Dan Pancamo (Flickr: Bay-breasted Warbler) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



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