Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The migration begins

I saw my first blackpoll warbler today. His presence ushers in the great songbird migration up the Mississippi Flyway. Every fall, roughly 60% of all North American birds fly from as far away as the Arctic Circle to the warmer climates of the Gulf Coast, Central and South America. In the spring, songbirds, waterfowl and waders generally follow the Mississippi River as a route to their breeding grounds. Along the way, the birds stop in advantageous spots for a few days at a time searching food and rest. Last year, during the migration, I saw several chestnut-sided and bay breasted warblers, two birds who spend their breeding period in Canada's boreal forest. I have a few migratory birds that I really want to see this year, but it's going to take a lot of effort.

I'm not a very deft birder. Like everything else I do, I have to work hard at birding. I don't have natural talents and have to work really hard to be good at anything. I'm terrible chess, pure math, piano. On the other hand, I can learn foreign languages pretty quickly. On a related note, if I hear a birdsong several times, I can learn it. But if I haven't heard the call before, which is more often the case during migration, I have to try to see the bird to identify it. Without leaves on the trees, seeing drab little female warblers isn't too much of a challenge, but now that the trees are starting to leaf out, I am spending on average 20 minutes in one spot looking for a bird who offers nothing but a nondescript "chip!" as a call. In woods with an average canopy height of 170 feet, little warblers are downright hard to see. In postage stamp-sized habitat patches, however, woodland species congregate in high numbers. I anticipate checking off a lot of birds on my list this spring, if I'm attentive.

Several years ago I went birding on the Louisiana coast with colleagues from the Louisiana Nature Center. We perched at the edge of the brackish water in Pointe la Hache, waiting for migratory birds to make their first stop since the barrier islands. All around us were brightly colored birds: warblers, buntings, vireos, flycatchers. My serious bird-watching friends logged 90 species in one morning. The smaller songbirds tended to fly in and perch on shrubs for minutes at a time. Geese and ducks sat motionless as we observed them. It was the easiest bird watching experience I have ever had. After spending over 45 minutes this evening trying to find a bird who was loudly singing across the bayou, I think fondly of birding on the Louisiana coast. Alas, this migration I'll just have to work hard in Missouri.

Two days later I realize the bird on the bayou is a hooded warbler, an easy bird for real birders to know by the call. And this is what separates me from real birders.

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