Thursday, May 10, 2012

Chasing Warblers

Prothonotary Warbler at Pheasant Branch Conservancy

For many Madison area birders it's the prospect of fantastic eye-level views of colorful wood warblers that brings them to Pheasant Branch Conservancy during April and May. I usually reserve the first half of May for chasing warblers for my patch list, becoming more birder than digiscoper. I'll encounter 30 or more warbler species at Pheasant Branch during spring migration. My count is at 28 so far this spring.

As I mentioned in my last post, this spring has been one of the most challenging of recent memory because many birds are being identified by song alone. Perhaps it wouldn't be so difficult if birds sounded just like their corresponding audio field guide recordings, but there's plenty of song variation, alternate songs, and occasionally some truly bizarre vocalizations I can't identify, which prompts me me to visually locate the singing culprit for correct identification.

My routine and strategy for chasing warblers it to get to the creek corridor around sunrise and scout the trail section between Parmenter Street and Century Avenue. Attentive to specific songs and song level as I walk, I document single singers with my iPod, but don't usually stop until I locate a fairly active flock. When I do, I listen and identify the various singers. I try to locate the bird visually if it's one I want to see or a song I don't recognize. When the song level begins to fade, it's a sign that the flock is moving on. When there are really good birds, I try to determine which direction they're heading and do my best to keep up with the flock.

What else is possible? There's still time for Cape May and Connecticut Warbler, but I doubt I'll get a Louisiana Waterthrush at the conservancy this spring. They've been on territory in the Baraboo Hills for a few weeks now. I figured the extended stay of Prothonotary Warblers last spring wouldn't be repeated. This migration has been more typical with only a couple single day golden-swamp warblers reported, unlike last year when several birds stuck around for a couple of weeks. I've heard that the Picnic Point Prothonotary Warblers have returned, but I haven't gone to visit them yet.

Only a few weeks left of chasing spring warblers in southern Wisconsin. Go outside and see them!

Prothonotary Warbler © 2012 Mike McDowell