Monday, August 19, 2013

Guest Post: Reflecting Back on a Warbler-filled Summer

Josh Wallestad writes about his birding adventures with his 6-year-old son, Evan, at A Boy Who Cried Heron.  Evan's interest in birds long preceded Josh's, but they are now both obsessed with this hobby and recently made the 200 Club for life birds.

It was June 2012, and I was driving my ATV on a trail through a stand of young aspen trees on my dad's land in northern Minnesota, completely oblivious to the world of birds. At this point in time I was still an NB - a non-birder. That all changed when I heard an incredibly loud and beautiful bird song over the engine noise of the ATV. What was that? I was compelled to get off the ATV to investigate. It didn't take long to find the source. A bird with a bright yellow cap and rusty brown sides was perched just a few feet away in a small tree singing his friendly song for the whole world to hear. Wow! I raced back to the house and grabbed my dad's tattered Peterson field guide from the 1960s.  The bird I saw was easy to find - the Chestnut-sided Warbler.
Chestnut-sided Warbler
I then discovered that there were dozens of these birds - these warblers.  I had no idea.  In that instant a birder was born. I went on to learn that the Chestnut-sided's song can be likened to the cheery phrase, "Pleased, pleased, pleased to meet you!" What an appropriate welcome to a brand-new birder.

I didn't waste time after my conversion to birding.  The very next morning my dad and I were out early searching for birds.  It didn't take long to find a couple more warbler gems, the Yellow Warbler and the Common Yellowthroat.
Yellow Warbler

Common Yellowthroat
So I went into the fall and winter as a birder.  Though I watched my feeder birds and chased some of Minnesota's boreal specialties like the Great Gray and Boreal Owls, I was anxious for spring to see more of these fantastic warblers. However, spring was slow to come to us in the northland as we had not one, but two, major April blizzards that caused schools and businesses to close.  But in between storms and sometimes during the storms, we picked up new life birds in the form of some very confused migrants. Still the warblers were hard to come by.  That all changed on one epic day in late May.

My new birder friend, Steve, called me to tell me that the warblers had finally arrived, and they were EVERYWHERE.  We went to a small, wooded park in our prairie town in west-central Minnesota, and the trees were dripping with warblers.  Every direction we looked held a new warbler lifer - Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Wilson's, Blackburnian, Northern Parula, Tennessee, American Redstart, Magnolia, Canada, Mourning, Palm, Golden-winged, Northern Waterthrush, Nashville, Ovenbird, Black-and-White, and many non-warbler lifers!  The excitement was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. The pictures tell it better than I ever could:

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
American Redstart
Magnolia Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Despite that incredible day and some good birding days that followed, I was missing one key warbler that should have been easy to get - the Black-throated Green Warbler. I just didn't bump into any.  To aggravate matters, two of my birding friends had one show up in their yards.  Migration came and went without me adding this cool bird to my now lengthy list of warbler life birds.  Hope was not lost, though, as they and many other warbler species take up residence in the northeastern part of our state, a region my family and I visit frequently.

So I planned a family camping trip to Temperance River State Park which is located on the North Shore of Lake Superior to hopefully find this bird.  We got to the park late in the evening and almost instantly when we stepped out of the car we heard the buzzy "Zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-ZEE!" song of my target bird.  Since I had to set up camp, I didn't have time to look that evening.  Early the next morning, though, I was on the hunt.  Within minutes I heard the song again and found that bird that had eluded me all spring.
Black-throated Green Warbler
It turns out these warblers were all over the park.  We had one at each of the two campsites we occupied.  Now that I had that bird secured, it was time to move on to the next target.  Conveniently located near Temperance River was Oberg Mountain, which is the most reliable place to find the rare regular Black-throated Blue Warbler in Minnesota according the The Birder's Guide to Minnesota by birding legend Kim Eckert.

As a family we made the 2.5 mile loop hike around the top of the mountain, which would just be considered a large hill in most states.  Plenty of times we heard the distinctive "Zoo-zoo-ZEE!" song of the Black-throated Blue, but we just couldn't locate it.  By this time my thirst for warblers had grown so much that I was determined to come back the next morning to find one.  That next morning when I was hiking by myself I finally found my bird.  It was so stunningly close that I nearly lost my breath as I fumbled for the camera.  I could not get over how beautiful this bird was. It was a literal and figurative mountain-top experience.
Black-throated Blue Warbler
While on this camping trip I got an email through the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union list serve that a Cerulean Warbler was reported a mere hour-and-a-half away from my home.  Now I was anxious for this vacation to be over so we could hurry home to chase this bird.

Not even home from our trip for a couple days, my six-year-old son and I hit the road to go find this hard-to-get warbler. Once at the site at this particular campground, we quickly heard the bird singing in the reported location, but we just could not locate it in the canopy.  It was getting really frustrating.  My son gave up to go play on the nearby playground, but I persevered. To occupy my time while I waited and watched, I pulled up the binoculars on anything that was a bird.  One time I saw a bird that looked black and white halfway up the trees.  It couldn't be the Cerulean.  But it was!  This blurry photo was the only one I got as I never saw the bird again.  Though the picture is low quality, it is a treasure to me.
Cerulean Warbler
I just couldn't get enough of these warblers.  I was now eyeing up some others I had seen reported on the list serve and scheming ways to go see them.  One that particularly interested me was the Yellow-throated Warbler that was reported at Whitewater State Park.  Not only was this a rare bird for our state, but there was another treasure in that same location.  Through my online birding connections, a long-lost college friend and I found each other and mutually discovered we had both gotten into birding!  Better yet, this friend, Malcolm, lived within a half hour of the Yellow-throated Warbler!  We simply had to go.

It was an unforgettable experience to see this old friend after over a decade and to go birding with him.  It took us awhile to find the bird that had taken up residence at the state park, but eventually we found it.  What a thrill it was to see the flash of that brilliant yellow throat!
Yellow-throated Warbler

How do you top seeing an old friend and a really rare bird? Malcolm discovered the presence of juveniles with this adult Yellow-throated Warbler!  All summer it had been reported by many birders as an individual. Malcolm's discovery was only the third record of this bird breeding in Minnesota!
One of four juvenile Yellow-throated Warblers
As I write this post and reflect back on all the warblers I've seen in my first year of birding, I still can hardly believe it all happened.  I'm excited to see what fall migration brings and to try out The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle.  And I've got my warbler targets for next summer already - Hooded, Kentucky, Blue-winged, and Prothonotary.  I can't wait!

You can read a more detailed account of the stories above at the following links:


  1. Josh, what a thrilling story! I would love to see a warbler fallout like that! Welcome to the birding world. I am so glad that your son is accompanying you! We need the next generation to know about and love birds!

  2. Thanks, Kathie! That was an unforgettable day that made me crave more warblers. I agree that we need to get the next generation excited about birds -- the conservation of many declining species depends on it!

  3. Wonderful post filled with beautiful photographs! I can't get enough of those gorgeous, colorful, wondrous warblers.

  4. Thanks, Julie! Warblers are certainly my favorite group of birds. I never tire of seeing the same species over and over, and finding a new species is a thill beyond compare!