How I learned the Palm Warbler

It began this morning at the Kitt Creek lake and wetland, a unique confluence of three habitats: mixed woodland, lake, and a wetland created by beavers. The wetland has a number of dead and dying trees in it, a favorite habitat for woodpeckers and other birds.

Today, as I walked along the gravel road that dissects the lake and the beaver pond, I ran across the usual suspects: osprey, great blue and green herons, a downy, and then a rare treat: a pileated woodpecker.  I had my digital voice recorder on, and as I type this now, I am listening to the recording.

As I kept walking while the digital recorder was running, I heard more wood ducks, males vocalizing, followed by tufted titmice, a chickadee, and an Eastern phoebe. And a pine warbler.

Then, pileated woodpecker, now from across the lake. Eastern phoebe again. The pine warbler trill.  A Carolina wren inserted its sputtering call into the audio mix. Then a brown-headed nuthatch bubbled overhead. I heard the “pik” of a downy and spotted it on a small, dead tree. A blue jay added its own insistent voice. As I neared the end of the road, I began to approach the same area where I had spotted a Northern waterthrush a few days ago. I waited a few minutes, listening.

There! The call of the waterthrush. I knew it hadn’t left yet. It was still there, hiding somewhere out of sight. I walked around the bend and stood next to a stand of cattails. The call was more insistent now.  I kissed the palm of my hand, just as I had a few days ago, and like a charm, there emerged, not one, but two Northern waterthrushes on a log near the edge of the beaver pond. Their back ends bobbing, I got to watch them for perhaps 30 seconds before they slipped below and out of sight.

Thrilled that I was able to see this waterthrush again, I began to walk back to the car, retracing my steps along the gravel road. That’s when I saw what I first thought were sparrows shooting out from the tall weeds at the edge of the pond and landing on a low perch. At the 36M 40s mark on the recording, I made the following notes while watching these birds through my binoculars:

“OK, getting two birds here now…they have, ah, eyebrows…pale eyebrows….they may be Tennessee warblers [WRONG!]. Yellow undertail coverts. Slight streaking on the sides. Bobbing the tail up and down….down and up, actually. Yeah, pale eye streak. Hear the call? [One of them calls, the notes recorded.] Mostly pale on the breast and belly but there’s a slight, brown steaking… I mean very, very faint on the flanks all the way up to the….close to the throat. The throat is pale underneath, too. The tail, ah, sort of rounded and notched…and the back end if you see underneath, they look yellow….the undertail coverts. Now he’s flying over here….I see both of them and they’re constantly bobbing their tails, down and up, down and up. They’re feeding in the tall weeds next to the edge of the lake….”

Realizing that I was seeing warblers I’m not familiar with, I pulled out my Stokes Field Guide to Warblers to help identify them. I thumbed through the whole book, scanning for anything close in the colorful photographs contained in this most excellent, slim guide.

As I thumbed through the guide, I remembered one detail not yet recorded and remarked, “It looked like the tail had white underneath. […pause…] It definitely had eyebrows.”

I was not able to positively confirm the birds’ ID in the field. There were too many other birds calling for my attention at the moment, and I also had to get to church to be at my post in the toddler class by 10am.

Later that afternoon, as I reviewed my notes and consulted other resources (Sibley eGuide, iBird South, and Peterson Field Guide to Warblers iPod apps), I realized that I had seen a pair of migrating palm warblers. This was a life bird for me, number 143 (which also happens to be the number of birds I’ve seen or heard this year).

The Sibley notes that this bird:

“…constantly pumps tail up and down. Ground-foraging habits and drab streaked plumage may recall sparrows….note dark eye-line [I did not notice this] and long pale eyebrow. Always has yellow around base of tail.”

iBird South notes that the bird’s “Preferred habitats include bogs, marsh edges, and weedy fields….forages on the ground and in shrubs and trees…. easily recognized by the tail-wagging habit that shows off its yellow undertail.”

Peterson’s notes that “both sexes brownish or olive above; yellowish or dirty white below [my palm warblers were dirty white below], narrowly streaked; bright yellow undertail coverts, white spots in tail corners.”

That last detail cinched it for me. I had recalled noting a little white under the tail.

Peterson’s continues:

“Two subspecies: Eastern breeders show more yellow below and on eyebrow [I did not notice these details in my palm warblers]; western breeders duller, may have yellow restricted to undertail coverts in fall.”

Yes! Another confirming detail!

Here’s what I learned about birding today (this applies especially for beginners):

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions. I had jumped immediately to Tennessee warbler when I saw the pail eyebrow. But other details ruled out that bird.
  2. Strap a digital voice recorder to your binoculars and describe the details of your observations while you are observing. Describe every detail you see. These details will guide you to a positive ID in most cases.
  3. Record the bird’s vocalization, if possible. A digital voice recorder is not the best recording device for bird songs and calls, but it can definitely help as you compare what you recorded with recordings of birds online.

Details matter. Conclusions don’t have to be made right away. Learning happens when you compare your detailed observations with the observations of experienced birders such as Sibley, Peterson, and others. The birders on the Carolina Birds listserve have really helped me to become a better birder and to appreciate the natural beauty of these feathered creatures we are blessed to watch and care for.

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About birdingatbond

I love birding! And I live near Fred G. Bond Metro Park in Cary, NC.
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