Stalking the yellow-rumped warbler

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The yellow-rumped warblers are back, flitting about in gaudy troupes on their way south. Some will winter in Panama. But for now, they are swarming about my yard. The daubs of yellow (on their crown and the sides, too) against an otherwise plain figure are not only arresting but also much appreciated by those trying to identify the species in the field.

I saw my first one of the season a week or so ago, apparently an advance scout, and he or she (they have similar plumage) was maddeningly elusive, as most warblers are. Yellow patches notwithstanding, it took me a while to make a positive ID.

But now I am combing them out of my hair. They are swirling about the bushy windbreaks of my hayfield like holiday shoppers on Black Friday. One just landed on my deck and posed, as if to mock my earlier efforts in the field. Bird watching is an exhilarating and humbling pastime.

With trouble looming, i.e. winter, many species congregate, and there is no better time of year to watch them than the fall. In late September, on the lower Connecticut River, hundreds of thousands of swallows – some observers estimate half a million – convene each evening in a breathtaking display of swirling avian fellowship. It is hard to dismiss this behavior as mere instinct. It has all the earmarks of a celebration: they are leaving Connecticut for warmer climes, after all.

Bluebirds flock together now as well, even though most of them will winter right here. As overnight temperatures drop, they pile en masse into tree cavities, or nest boxes, packed like sardines to conserve body heat. Right now whole families of them are gathering atop the garden fence posts, feasting on insects, and dodging squadrons of dive-bombing chipping sparrows.

The beauty of fall birding is more than sheer abundance: the light and temperature are perfect; and your prey is active at reasonable hours, not simply at the crack of dawn. Also, there is the chance to spy a rare, fleeting migrant.

I think I saw a Kentucky warbler a few weeks ago, on two consecutive days. With Elvis-like sideburns, a yellow underbody and a drab-olive back, he was warbling right where he was supposed to: in a bush near a clearing. This individual was most accommodating, allowing me to focus my binoculars on him for long stretches of time; in this, he was something of a disgrace to his genus.

Connecticut is not prime Kentucky warbler territory, so I checked with two fellow travelers – gentlemen who can identify rare species by sound alone – and they clearly were excited, saying, yes, it was possible, if unusual, to see one. Others had seen them here over the years, but, alas, neither of them had.

My triumph was short-lived. One of them asked, since I had been birding solo, if I had taken a photo to confirm the sighting. Like the Mets, birders can play hardball, too.

The abundance of birds in the fall is deceiving. Stalking birds in the summer is a different experience. Most often a long leisurely walk produces only the usual suspects, perhaps a chickadee or a blue jay, or perhaps nothing at all. The mosquitoes and black flies make standing still challenging. I saw and heard so few birds this summer that it made me worry for them – and about us, too.

This is more than an anecdotal assessment. Studies have documented a worrisome decline in songbird populations, particularly forest species like ovenbirds. I don’t hear these noisy neighbors like I used to. Nearly 400 bird species frequent our state: 19 are listed as endangered by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and another 31 are classified as threatened or species of concern.

Spring isn’t silent but it’s getting quieter. The National Audubon Society, among others, has reported that some common bird populations are down by more than 50 to 80 percent from their numbers in the 1960s. Other studies reveal another disturbing fact: we modern humans spend fully 90 percent of our life indoors.

It is hard to appreciate things we don’t see. Warblers can cope with a harsh winter, but one wonders if they will survive us.

David Holahan is a freelance writer from East Haddam.

 

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