Distance doesn’t seem to deter migratory birds; they travel from one part of the world to another as though there was no tomorrow. And for many, there is none. They do what they have to ensure their lineage survives to the next generation – so it’s all about tomorrow.
When they leave their wintering grounds to go north, its likely that they’ll have more food and less competition for territory than if they stayed in southern California. Birds are going everywhere all the time. Trying to find the birds that are going everywhere is another matter. Since the imperative to reproduce is not so strong, migrant fall warblers don’t pronounce themselves visibly as they do in spring. Then they are singing from high trees, showing their bright colours from low bushes and skipping from tuft to tuft in tall grass meadows. During fall migration, however, they stay as hidden as possible and are almost impossible to see.
Just this past week we could hear light chirps from the deep brush and knew there were warblers somewhere, but where? To left or right; high or low; anywhere at all? Perhaps the calls were someone’s radio miles away. On quiet mornings, sounds do carry so it’s a waiting game. Songbirds don’t always respond to coaxing calls after the nesting season; they know the chicks have hatched and gone so pretending to be a hungry chick doesn’t impress them. They either go deeper into the brush or go completely quiet.
A branch twitches – there’s a flash of yellow. Bright yellow, light yellow, yellowy-grey, greeny-yellow? Well, yellow for sure. Definitely an Orange-crowned Warbler. They nest here so are to be expected. Then a Townsend’s Warbler hops up; its bright black-and-yellow face is clearly visible. But what’s that other one? Has it a white eye-ring? Yes. It’s not very colourful and quite small and moves quickly. A rare Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Tiny ruby-crowns usually travel on their own, are one of the smallest songbirds and have a distinctive way of darting quickly through the underbrush. They are about the same size as the more common Golden-crowned Kinglets that have just shown up. They nest here and this is possibly a family group that calls from one to another.
The lovely morning passes. A Pacific-slope Flycatcher appears for a second and is gone. Then a definitely yellow bird. A Wilson’s Warbler! Bright, cute and colourful. Chestnut-backed Chickadees fly low over the open, a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos feed in the low spruce and an eagle calls from the distance. Its time to leave the birds to their own errands.
It was an interesting, educational morning and its good to know that we are not alone in trying to identify small yellow flying things; even the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology admits that it’s the season of confusing warblers “after spending summer wearing brilliant colors, several warbler species molt into confusingly similar patterns.” They are so right.