Monday, September 29, 2008


From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: It’s an awfully small bird to have such a big name. The Black-throated Blue Warbler is maybe five inches long from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail. It weighs less than an ounce, even when it’s fattened up for its biggest journey of the year, which is happening right now. This warbler is on its way south, and by this date in late September, most of its kind have already headed to more southerly latitudes.

Birders and non-birders could be separated on the basis of their experience with warblers. Everyone has seen birds like geese, and everyone notices pelicans or eagles if they’re arround. But warblers are different: they mostly go unnoticed by most people, even while many birders regard them as favorites. North America has more than 50 kinds of warblers – small, active, colorful birds that flit among the leaves, feeding on insects. Most of them spend the winter in the tropics, coming north in a rush in spring, while birders rush out to look for them. Their southward migration in fall is not so celebrated, partly because many of them change into a duller fall plumage, making them harder to tell apart. But the male Black-throated Blue Warbler has a black throat and a blue back all year long.

Every species of warbler has its own distinct range. This male Black-throated Blue, which paused out behind the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in northern Ohio today, probably had come from somewhere in southern Canada, and it was almost certainly headed for wintering grounds somewhere in the Caribbean. Once when I was in Jamaica in winter I was amazed at how many Black-throated Blue Warblers I saw in the woods. These little migratory birds represent a shared treasure, to be enjoyed by citizens of several nations on their seasonal travels.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Chimney Swift

From Home Base, Kim Writes: Chimney Swifts have always captivated me. When visible, they are constantly in motion, making it impossible to learn anything about the way the bird really looks. When I first got interested in birds, the fact that the illustration of the bird in my field guide was absolutely atrocious only added to the intrigue.

A few years ago, I was working at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory's songbird banding station when we captured a Chimney Swift; a rare occurrence to say the least, since the birds tend to keep to the air and not drop down into the range of a 12 foot high mist net. We believe the bird may have been roosting in a large dead cottonwood tree near the mist net it was captured in.

On the wing, the bird is 100% mystery in motion, never pausing to allow study of any detail. In the hand, the bird is one of the most unusual creatures I have ever encountered. I have banded thousands of warblers, vireos, thrushes, et cetera, and have spent what I'm sure by now amounts to hours with my mouth hanging open in all-out awe of the up-close beauty of birds like Blackburnian Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, and Marsh Wren. But, I have to tell you that, for me, nothing has come close to that little Chimney Swift.

The bird is so perfectly constructed for its life style. Long, graceful wings that, even with the bird held still in my hand, seemed to imply motion. Its face is lovely, yet almost reptilian in appearance. Large eyes in a smallish head, with a bill that is so tiny as to almost be unnecessary. But, when that bill opens….Yowza! What a pie hole this bird displays; perfectly designed for sucking up insects out of the air. Out of the bird’s tail sprouted the sharpest, needle-like, modified feathers--
spines that any porcupine would surely have been jealous of! Not just bizarre and cool, these spines have a purpose. The bird uses them to prop itself against the inside of its nest cavity.

But most surprising and delightful for me was the color of the bird’s plumage. What a total shock. Not a single field guide does this bird justice, and, while I understand the rationale behind it -- shown from a birder's perspective, since that’s the way its typically seen -- it seems a shame not to at least give a teasing glimpse into the real story here. The Kaufman guide comes close, showing a bird perched on the side of a tree, but in the hand, in the right light, WOW…What a gorgeous little bird this is. Appearing solid sisterhood-gray in the sky, up close, the color is a shocking blend of purples, greens, blues, and grays, all stirred together in the most striking color combination that I’m sure is next to impossible to blend on even the most skilled artist’s palette.

Years later I am still marveling at my encounter with this spectacular little bird, and the beauty that lies within that little shadow in the sky.