In his quest to see an elusive warbler, a lifelong birder discovers that some species are indeed more equal than others.
By Thomas Urquhart
Abruptly the thrushes and towhees that had been vying with their songs went still. Silence spread over the wood, broken only by the warning—a sporadic tonk! —of a chipmunk sitting stock still on a log. Up in a pine tree a red squirrel hunched itself into the nook of a branch.
I noticed none of this immediately. As it had been every morning that week, my attention was focused laserlike on a triangle where two paths diverged around a thicket of wild roses, home for the last four days to a mourning warbler, a bird I had never seen. So called because of the elegant black jabot that sets off the gray throat and yellow breast of the male, this particular warbler is never abundant in Maine, and because it is shy by nature, it's that much harder to find. Even during a migration season that local ornithologists had already pronounced stellar, a mourning warbler in these parts is what birders call a “good bird.”
And a life bird would be a fitting climax to the hours I had spent warbler watching in Evergreen Cemetery during the past month. With the migration dwindling daily, today was my last chance. I had been hunting since dawn.
In Maine, where I live, May is when waves of migrating warblers fill the night skies, at dawn descending on city parks and cemeteries. They are a colorful bunch. For me, the myriad combinations of yellow and black and red and blue that brighten northern woods are the real first impulse of spring.
Around Portland, Evergreen Cemetery—a stately place where the city's grandees await the Day of Judgment—is the spot preferred by spring birders. The hard core was already there the day I put in my first appearance of the year. Judy Walker and Bill Hancock, clearly identified by their Maine Audubon patches and caps, had been keeping track of the avian traffic since dawn. The former editorial-page editor of the Portland Newspapers, George Neavoll, tall and distinguished with his white mane, murmured about a couple of rarities he thought he'd seen. Kay Gammon, the doyenne of Portland birders, gently instructed newcomers and novices. As always, my companion of choice was the novelist Monica Wood. Not only does she have a vivacious redhead's enthusiasm, she knows her birds, and her generosity toward our compatriots (who are, when all is said and done, a pretty eccentric lot) tempers my less forgiving outlook.
The moment of truth announced itself with a flurry in the trees above us. I reminded myself that hobbies should be approached with a Zenlike attitude or they become gut-gnawing obsessions. But Zen was out the window. No matter that I had started the morning mindful and open to whatever might show up; species envy quickly took over. To pursue the fiery-faced Blackburnian in the pine tree or the Wilson's, with its black yarmulke, hopping about the bush nearby—that was the question. Even as I drew a bead on a flitting shadow, I was mentally looking over my neighbors' shoulders in case they had a lock on something more interesting. By the time I had focused my binoculars, nothing was left but a quivering twig. Warblers are as hyperactive as the mind of the birdwatcher who is unable just to be present at so phenomenal a pageant.
As the wave subsided, I tried to regain something of my earlier mindfulness. What about the chickadee, beloved of bird feeders? When all these fancy foreigners have left us for the winter, it is the chickadee that keeps our spirits up. Why ignore it now? The one just down the path was a picture of perkiness as it stropped its bill on a branch. Was it a bug or some nesting material in its beak? By taking the time to watch even the commonest bird, one can find it doing all sorts of interesting things. Birders have special lists of birds they have seen singing, nesting, even defecating. When another chickadee caught my eye and I turned my attention to it, my high-minded resolution was rewarded. The black cap had misled me, and the bird was actually a blackpoll warbler, in snappy black-and-white plumage, and my first this year. I decided to leave for another time the metaphysical aspects of my delight that an old reliable should have metamorphosed into a glamorous summer visitor. All birds are equal, but . . .
In broad outline the migratory season may be predictable, but the way it unfolds is a continual surprise. This year temperatures stayed lower than usual, and halfway through May the leaves were almost a week behind, which made spotting easier. Windy mornings also kept the birds closer to the ground, a godsend to warbler watchers, for whom stiff necks are too often an occupational hazard. From day to day, different species predominated. One morning the place was full of Nashville warblers; the next, nothing but Canadas and their delicate black necklaces. When the new undergrowth finally came in, the bushes trembled with unseen birds, making my scalp itch.
One morning as I rested my back against a tree for a few minutes, I found myself surrounded by a bevy of beautiful girls. Subtler perhaps than their sharp-looking mates, which had been center stage the first few weeks, they were quite as attractive: the soft, harmonious tones of the black-throated blue warbler set off by the “pocket handkerchief” on the wing she shares with the male; the yellow and olive decorum of the yellowthroat. But my favorite will always be the redstart. What she lacks in color (the red-and-black razzle-dazzle of her consort) she more than makes up for in attitude. Her wings seem to be permanently half open, and the sassy way she flutters about and flicks her tail says to all the world that she's a corker and she knows it!
As the month advanced, the flood of migrants started to taper off and with it, the birdwatchers. The morning after Memorial Day, Evergreen was empty. A few warblers—hard to identify against the overcast sky—sang high in the trees above ponds scummy with pine pollen. The sense of time passing was autumnal. Just as I drove off, a handful of birders trickled in.
I should have stayed. By noon the bush telegraph was abuzz: The mourning warbler had arrived the night before. Projects shelved and lunch plans rearranged, I grabbed the nearest field guide and hurried back.
The first person I bumped into was George, who had been there all morning. He told me gleefully how crisp this particular individual's markings were, more handsome than any he had seen before. “But he doesn't show himself readily,” he warned, with more than a hint of pessimism. Monica, on the other hand, believes in positive thought. She had already seen the bird and met me by the pond. “I have a good feeling about this,” she announced as a yellow warbler sang from an overhanging bush nearby.
Although we both knew it was what we wanted to do, rushing straight for the thicket where the bird of the hour had been seen would have been indecorous. Birdwatching has its etiquette. Along the way, we paused to look at a yellowthroat hopping in the underbrush (in that setting it might have been our bird) and a chickadee for good measure. Nonetheless, we soon found ourselves at the place where the mourning warbler was said to be pausing on its trip to Canada. Moving slowly and methodically down the path, eyes trained on the ground, I paused every couple of steps to scan the shrubbery around.
The roses provided impenetrable cover for a bird that “skulks in thickets,” as Peterson laconically observes. But here and there a honeysuckle bush reared above the tangle, if only the bird could be persuaded to check us out. Monica pished softly, a sound that for some reason excites small birds, and sure enough, the leaves jiggled and a bird with an olive back—could it be?—bounced up to the top of one of the branches. This time, when it turned out to be another yellowthroat, we did not disguise our disappointment.
I tried again the next morning, and the next. The mourning warbler was still hanging around, but not for me, no matter how hard I looked.
The last morning I got to Evergreen Cemetery at 5:45. Monica joined me, still ecstatic over seeing the mourning warbler, and equally full of genuine commiseration for my failure to do so. “You know,” she said, “there's a tiny part of me that wishes I hadn't seen it . . . so I would still have it to look forward to.” For that morning I hated her as only one collector—birdwatching being, after all, a form of collecting—can hate another.
We were hovering between the thicket and the pond, not wanting to give up but not wanting to miss anything else either, when a flock of little birds overtook us. One landed at the bottom of a bush away from the water, while another sat on a bare branch over the pond. I chose the former and had just identified it as another yellowthroat when I heard an excited whisper. “Thomas, it's him!” As I whipped around, something with feathers “Moved with a Tweet and out of sight in an instant.” While we thrashed the patch from the path, a song I hadn't heard before confirmed Monica's identification: “short and rhythmic with rich, churring quality,” as Sibley says. We heard it once more from further inside the thicket, and then it just vanished.
“Did you see it?” Monica asked, but my desperate searching more than told her I had not. Once again I went back to the rose thicket, scanned it for the thousandth time. From its nest in a pine branch, a wood thrush filled the morning with lovely song. A fitful rain started to spatter the ground. When a leaf stirred in the corner of my eye, I swung my binoculars around madly, only to find it was a raindrop instead of a bird. All one could do was try to be philosophical. Birding is being at the right place at the right time, and expecting the unexpected. In going after a specific bird so single-mindedly these past mornings, I knew I was risking disappointment. But it was the end of the season, and I felt I could afford to relax my principles. Some birds are more equal than others.
In an instant the thrushes and towhees that had been singing so brilliantly went still. A powerful shadow slid across my outer vision. The sudden silence must have prodded my subconscious, because in a split second my body had quickened, as if by adrenaline. In hardly more than another second the bird had disappeared among the trees. An aura so compelling could only mean a raptor; its intensity stretched the moment, making time for surprising detail. A hint of pale about the rump had made me think harrier, but the flight was wrong. Something told me the bird had just taken wing and would land nearby. Sure enough, it perched not 20 yards away, and by that time I knew it had to be a goshawk.
Settling on a bare bough, it let go with a majestic defecation (one for the shit list, I noted), then glared at me with baleful eyes the color of its talons. Tonk! Tonk! In the stillness the wood acknowledged the arrival of its lord. I stared and stared. Thrill at this appearance, like a comet, overwhelmed the fading hopes of finding my original quarry. Expect the unexpected. Though in one particular, I might, like Audubon, be “much disappointed,” a “tiny part of me,” as Monica would say, could now look forward to seeing the mourning warbler another—less expected—time.
Thomas Urquhart is a writer and the former director of the Maine Audubon Society.
© 2005 National Audubon Society
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