Jun 9, 2008

Warblers.They're Coming Through

Warblers…They’re Coming Through




He was born to be a “birder.”  He got his first field guide when he was in 3rd grade.  By the time he was nine he wrote his fist book, “Greg Cunningham’s First Book of Birds.”  It was destiny.  Greg continues to be an active bird watcher and all-around naturalist.


Greg grew up in Villa Hills and until recently lived in Ft. Mitchell.  Now living in Columbus, he’s on the advisory board of Audubon Ohio, a state organization of the National Audubon Society.  “Our mission is connecting people with nature,” said Greg.  “The Audubon Society is all about nature and wildlife with an emphasis on birds.”


Greg recently took a trip to Lake Erie’s Black Swamp area to do a little birding.  “The whole northwest corner of Ohio was at one time a huge swamp called the Great Black Swamp,” said Greg.  “Only remnants remain and they’re critical stopovers for migrating birds to rest and refuel before crossing Lake Erie to Canada.”  The Black Swamp area is also one of the best spots in North America to see the ultimate prize of spring birding…our wood warblers.


Many folks go a lifetime without know that warblers even exist.  These small neo-tropical migrants are little more than 5-inches long.  They are extremely colorful and persistent songsters, but you’d be hard pressed to even see one without a good pair of binoculars.  They are THE bird that birders take to the trail for every spring, bragging about their sightings and every bit as enthusiastic as the most fervent fly-fishermen.


“The wood warblers are in breeding plumage now with very bright colorations,” said Greg.  In fact, 25 of the 38 eastern warblers have yellow as the dominant color.  They look like flashy winged jewels.


Warblers are highly varied with 116 species living in the New World.  The greatest diversity occurs in Central and North America.  Warblers are truly tropical birds that evolved in the lush forests of Central America where the greatest diversity of species are still found.  Fortunately for us, many have developed highly migratory life cycles, nesting across much of the United States and Canada.


“It is interesting to note that they only spend a few months in North America to coincide with our long days and plentiful supply of insects,” said Greg.  “Major threats are deforestation of wintering and nesting grounds, excessive use of pesticides, and lack of suitable stop over points along migration routes.” 


One warbler seriously impacted by deforestation is the Cerulean warbler.  Their numbers have plummeted by 70% over the last several decades.  “Ceruleans need large, mature, intact woods,” said Greg.  “Fragmentation, strip-mining and logging have really taken a toll on them.”

“The bird that everyone wants to see at Black Swamp is the Kirtland’s warbler because it is so rare,” Greg continued.  “They nest in young jack pines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Habitat management has really helped increase the numbers of this federally endangered species.”  Kirtland warblers were at an all-time low in 1987 when only 167 birds could be found.  By 2007, with proper habitat management, almost 1,500 males were found singing on their breeding grounds. 


First arrivals to Northern Kentucky include Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-throated and Yellow-rumped warblers.  Occasionally Yellow-rumped warblers can even be spotted in the dead of winter. 


Our smallest warbler is the Northern Parula at 4.5-inches, while the largest is the Yellow-breasted Chat at 7.5-inches.


“Only one of our eastern warblers is a cavity nester, the Prothonotary warbler,” said Greg.  “Prothonotaries nest along streams and wetlands and will often use nest boxes.”

Gorgeous birds, males are brilliant yellow-orange with blue-gray wings.


One of Greg’s favorite warblers is the American Redstart, a showy and hyperactive bird.  Males are black with striking orange flashes.  In their native Central America they are frequently referred to as “latrine birds” because of their habit of hanging around and eating the many flies attracted to local outhouses.


No warbler travels further than does the Blackpoll warbler.  In spring some Blackpolls migrate nearly 8,000 miles one way from as far south as Argentina to Canada and Alaska.  In fall many fly nonstop, over 2,000 miles in 3 days over the open waters of the Atlantic, from New England to South America.


True to their name, Prairie warblers can be found in open areas, while Pine warblers are usually found amongst pine trees.  Not so true to their name, Tennessee and Nashville warblers were named for the locations they were originally found and identified during migration, not necessarily where they nest or spend time otherwise.


The most widely distributed warbler is the Yellow warbler, with the Common Yellowthroat running a close second.  Both are spectacular looking birds and occur nearly over the entire continent.


Unfortunately, since Europeans have colonized the continent, seven North American birds have gone extinct.  One victim is the Bachman’s warbler, a beautiful black and yellow bird.  Like the Ivory-billed woodpecker, Bachman’s bred in the old-growth swamp forests of the southeastern U.S.  Forest and bird are now gone.






Some warblers are even hybrids.  The Brewster’s warbler is a cross between the Blue-winged and Golden-winged warbler.  While the Lawrence’s warbler is a cross between a
Brewster’s and Golden-winged or Blue-winged warbler.  And believe it or not, Cincinnati has its own warbler, the Cincinnati warbler.  Only two specimens have ever been collected of this rare hybrid of a Kentucky warbler and Blue-winged warbler, once in 1880 and again in 1948. 


Is there a consistent favorite warbler?  “If there’s a favorite for most it’s probably the Blackburnian warbler,” said Greg.  “It is magnificent with its flame-orange throat and black and orange head.”


During the month of May warblers can be seen just about anywhere.  It’s just a matter of grabbing the binoculars and looking up to see these tropical visitors.  They are well worth the view.


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at www.woodlandhabitat.com or at yourtown@fuse.net






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