Log Cabin Chronicles

Dicke Bird, Dickie Bird
fly away home

Beth Girdler


Eyes glued to binoculars, neck craned to vertical…"Uh huh, see him?…No, gone. There! On the twig next to that clump of leaves…isn't he gorgeous!" (Conversation between two birdwatchers early one spring morning.)

Sometimes you just can't see the forest for the trees. And, well, sometimes you can't see the birds for the leaves.

Finding and identifying any one of the 30 species of wood warblers or Parulinae known to breed in Quebec, at least 19 in this region, can be a challenge. It takes a keen eye, a good ear and immunity to black fly bites. However, catching a glimpse of these four and half-inch dynamos is well worth the effort.

A biologist friend of mine who was 'into' birds of prey called them "dickie birds." Roger Tory Peterson referred to them as the "butterflies of the bird world".

Black-throated Green Warbler

I think warblers are the gems of the forest. They remind me of colourful bits of Christmas candy. The plumage of the males during the breeding season would put Elton John to shame.

Arriving here in the spring, warblers come decked out in colour combinations any art lover would admire. Brilliant orange, Lime green, chestnut brown, Cerulean blue, Wedgwood blue, sunflower yellow and scarlet are some of the colours included on the pallet. Add adornments such as necklaces, collars, hoods, masks, spectacles, stripes and spots and the effect is stunning.

In most cases, the female's plumage is more subtle than the males, but still lovely.

Warblers have slender, straight, pointed beaks and pointed wings. They flutter and dart about the vegetation, feeding almost exclusively on insects. These birds often occur in large enough numbers to have a significant effect on insect populations. (Eat those black flies and mosquitoes, please…)

Each species has a different feeding strategy. Some glean insects from the treetops, some hunt at mid-height and others forage in the understory or on the forest floor. One species, the Black-and-white Warbler, picks insects from the bark of the tree trunk while the American Redstart nabs them out of the air like a flycatcher.

Black & amp; White Warbler

There are also warblers, such as the Blackburnian Warbler, that prefer conifers over deciduous trees and a few species that live in more open conditions, often in willow scrub near water, like the Yellow Warbler and Common Yellowthroat.

This diversification of strategies means that several species of warbler can co-exist in the same section of forest without competing directly for food.

At the Pinnacle -- H. F. Baldwin Park)in Quebec's Eastern Townships -- I see Redstarts, Magnolia Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-throated-blue Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Ovenbirds and Canada Warblers all together in one particularly fruitful (or buggy) patch of mixed mature trees. And that's on a bad day. I just stand and watch the parade flit by.

Differences in nesting sites further reduce competition.

You can find nests on the ground among tree roots, wedged behind the peeling bark of a dead tree, among the uppermost branches of a maple or, in the case of the Northern Parula, suspended in a mat of old man's beard lichen.

Warbler nests are tiny affairs, often in cup form, and usually built by the female. You are doing very well if you can spot one. The eggs within are miniscule jelly bean-sized and decorated with drizzles or speckles of chestnut-red markings.

The best way to locate a warbler is by listening for its song. Once you detect it, stare in the direction the song is coming from and watch for movement as the bird grabs a snack between tunes. During the breeding season, the males sing almost continuously, each species with its own distinct song. Due to this distinction, it is possible to identify species by ear. Handy when the trees leaf out and the little birds are backlit by the early morning sunlight.

Several of the songs are easy to pick out of the general cacophony in the spring.

If you are walking in a forest where pine or hemlock are mixed with deciduous trees listen for the high-pitched "zee zee zoo zee" also depicted as "trees trees murmuring trees" of the Black-throated Green Warbler. The explosion of a loud "teacher, teacher, teacher" that increases in volume, heard in many woods all summer long, comes from the ground feeding Ovenbird. You'll never forget that one once you've heard it.

In damp thickets you will hear the high sweet song of the Yellow warbler "sweet sweet sweeter than sweet" and the insistent "wichity wichity wichity" of the Common Yellowthroat. Even when the birds are not singing, warblers give away their location by letting out a short sharp "tsip" call at regular intervals.

Warblers can be very territorial. I often witness skirmishes that may last several seconds and sometimes move right past my head or around my feet. Try pishing for warblers ("pshh pshhh pshhh") and making kissing sounds. They react by flying in close to the sound to check for intruders, making identification a little easier.

I hope I have your interest piqued and your ears perked. Get out your field guide and binoculars and go for a walk in the woods. Momentarily tune out the Robin, the Blue Jay, and the Blackbird and you will detect another world of tiny pest control specialists wearing colours worth the price of admission.

The naturalist Beth Girdler writes from Ayer's Cliff, Quebec.

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Copyright © 2000 Beth Girdler/Log Cabin Chronicles/06.2000