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Our Tiniest Tourists

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

With the arrival of autumn after this year’s scorching summer comes another swarm of voraciously hungry and noisy visitors to New York and the East Coast. But, unlike tourists of the human persuasion, our fall songbird migrants are swift moving, courteous to the environment, and exactly what our streets and forests need (because they keep the bug populations down). Some of these tourists hail from homes even farther away than China or Russia. For example, Arctic terns fly 44,000 miles every year between Greenland and Antarctica, dropping in for a bit on our Long Island coastlines. (But don’t worry; you can see these stunners again as early as December on Discover Outdoor’s trip to Patagonia, Chile!) Of our menagerie of unique tourist-birds from all around the world, from woodpeckers to flycatchers, one category runs the migratory show: the wood warblers.

What is so special about these guys, you ask? So many things!

Their size, for one: weighing in at only about 5 grams (about the weight of a sheet of computer paper) and about 4 inches long.

Their colors: hundreds of shades from yellow and green to the perfect Halloween-inspired orange and black (the male American redstart); nicknamed the “butterflies of the bird world.”

And their challengingly minute variances: over 120 species exist, and more are still being identified.

Here’s a picture of my all-time favorite, the Northern Parula (“Pear-ee-oo-lah”), which is almost an iridescent blue in the sunlight:

© Greg Schneider, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada, June 2011

And a few more common ones you might see this fall on trail…

The Black-and-white warbler, a fan favorite with the kids for its striking similarity to a zebra:

© JMK Birder, Tolland, Connecticut, May 2010

The Common yellowthroat, easily identified by the male’s seriously cute Mask of Zorro:

© Joel DeYoung, Holland, Michigan, May 2012

Where They Tour

Find these friendly folks anywhere along the Northeast this fall, but train your eyes to the upper canopies of deciduous trees or the weedy fields beside wooded groves. You can practice your skills right here in NYC before hitting the trails by venturing to the charming Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the hidden trails around the Lake in Prospect Park, or battle all the tourists at once and visit the Ramble area of Central Park (there are detailed birding maps for these parks online). At these locations it is not unusual for experienced birders to spot 25-30 species of warblers in a day! Binoculars are recommended, but you don’t need to be fancy. My $30 pair has given me years of enjoyment. Bonus: birding from then on is free! And, if you walk a few miles while you’re searching, you’ve got yourself the cheapest, lowest-impact workout ever. Translate your birding skills to the world of hiking, and you’ll never be bored on trail again!

Tiny Tips

  • Warblers are quick, so the best bet you have for spotting them is to stand still and watch the trees for movement among the leaves, similar to spotting a bumblebee amidst flowers.
  • Avoid the well-known birding affliction “warbler neck” by finding a viewing perch where you can look down rather than up at the tree canopy.
  • No need for “early bird gets the worm” crack-of-dawn alarms. Warblers are most active at about 10am and then again near water sources at dusk.
  • Check your identification notes with the world famous resources of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Join me on a Discover Outdoors 2 out of 10 Intensity hike this fall. I have this annoying (but informative!) habit of pointing out every migratory bird I encounter on trail.

LeAnn M. Holland is a licensed school teacher, Senior Discover Outdoors Guide and working on her PhD in philosophy and education.

Categories: People, Education