Sunday, September 13, 2009

Finding Fall Warblers: the importance of flocks

A Blackpoll Warbler in typical fall plumage, lurking among the leaves

Woodlots along the Lake Erie shoreline in northwest Ohio hold excellent numbers of migrant warblers in fall as well as in spring, but fall is more challenging and requires a different strategy. In spring, you can find many warblers just by wandering along the Magee Marsh boardwalk and stopping wherever you see clusters of birders. In fall, birders are less numerous and the warblers and other birds are less conspicuous.

In fall, even more than in spring, there is a strong tendency for the warblers to be in flocks. These flocks may be only loosely organized, but there may be anywhere from three or four to thirty or forty birds traveling in the same general area. So if you see one warbler, it is a good idea to stop and look around very carefully for others. Chances are you’ll find more nearby.

These individuals and flocks tend to be inconspicuous, so you need to watch for movement and listen for chip notes. Often the warblers will be associated with Black-capped Chickadees or sometimes with Downy Woodpeckers, so if you see or hear those species, again, it’s a good idea to check the surrounding area, even spending a couple of minutes scanning and waiting for warblers to appear. And when you do find warblers, stick with the flock for a while, until you’re sure that you’re seeing every individual bird for at least the second time.

In fall, in between flocks, things can seem extremely quiet -- almost scary-quiet. Spring warblers may be concentrated in flocks as well, but between flocks in spring we have other birds, resident birds, actively singing on territory. With those lacking in fall, the woods can seem dead until we find a flock. It takes a certain amount of resolve to keep going and searching when the woods seem absolutely birdless. But with persistence, practically any day in fall along the lake shore, we’ll eventually find those roving flocks to make the effort worthwhile.

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