Spring comes to the forest floor first.
Skunk cabbage, jack-in-the-pulpits and trout lilies were emerging from the soil in a mosaic of green and purple. Ghostly Indian pipe seemed to simply appear without sending down roots or unfurling leaves to catch the strengthening sun.
The trail we were on was muddy and the air was redolent of the fecund earth. It felt great to breathe in the damp odors and feel the sun on my face after this long winter.
I had finally lifted my sights from the forest floor and was greeted by the black silhouette of a tiny bird dancing on the trunk of a towering oak. I left the trail to get a better look, circling around so the sunlight was behind me. I was certain that I’d see a brown creeper or perhaps a red-breasted nuthatch. I was wrong on both counts. A boldly striped black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) was now clearly in view.
The nomenclature of birds is often cryptic. The red-bellied woodpecker’s red is more evident on its head than on its belly, and the ring-billed duck’s ring is barely visible at all.
Thankfully, the black-and-white warbler’s name is uncharacteristically accurate. Breeding males like the one I was watching are totally black and white. A breeding female adds just a touch of gray on the cheeks.
The black-and-white’s bill is long and slightly decurved. The bird has a black crown and a bright white belly. Its wings and body are boldly striped. Males have a black cheek patch and a black throat patch. The female, in contrast, has a white chin and throat.
Black-and-whites are a typical warbler size: about 5 inches long and just less than one-half ounce. Although classified as a wood warbler, the black-and-white is the only member of its genus to inhabit North America.
Unlike other warblers, this one creeps along tree trunks or horizontal branches looking for insects. Its feeding behavior seems more like that of a nuthatch or a creeper than a warbler.
Early spring is the perfect time to see black-and-whites. They are among the first to fly north, reaching Texas by March and the Chesapeake by mid-April. Their breeding range encompasses most of the land east of the Rockies, except for the Gulf Coast. In winter, these birds head south to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, including Venezuela and Columbia.
Black-and-white warblers favor forest interiors. Our walk had taken us onto land that had been heavily timbered at the end of the 19th century. This second-growth forest had grown largely undisturbed for more than a century. There was a fine mix of mature hardwoods, which the warblers prefer over conifers.
Here in the Chesapeake watershed, these woods are more likely to be felled to make way for a housing development than to satisfy the demands of a timber company. Scientists tell us that the population of black-and-whites is healthy and relatively stable. The only threat on the horizon is forest fragmentation. As we cut into forests to make way for power lines and pipelines, developments and roads, we destroy the intact forests that these birds need.
These lovely woods were ideal for the warbler I was watching so intently. In its search for food, the bird continued to move head first up and down trunks and branches. Moth and butterfly larvae were prime targets. Black-and-whites choose these protein-rich and calorie-laden foods in the spring to help them recover from their long migration and to prepare for breeding. As the summer progresses, these warblers will broaden their palates to include spiders, flies, ants, beetles and other insects.
Nests are built on the ground at the base of a tree, shrub or rock. The female will lay four to five eggs in a nest consisting of leaves, rootlets and grass. The nest is lined with hair, fern, down, or moss. (The bird’s unpronounceable scientific name comes from a Greek word meaning “moss plucking.”)
The busy male that I had been watching finally ate his fill and perched on a nearby branch. He threw back his head and started singing. The song, a thin, high-pitched affair, sounded remarkably like a squeaky wheel turning slowly: “wheezy-wheezy-wheezy.” The tune was monotonous.
“Black and white” in colloquial speech suggests something that is clearly one thing or its opposite: right or wrong, darkness or light. But the black-and-white warbler resists these easy classifications. It has the sound of a rusty wheelbarrow, the behavior of a nuthatch, and not a trace of the yellows, reds and greens we associate with wood warblers.
The simple black and white palate of this warbler is just one element of the bird’s unique and complex characteristics.
Somehow that seemed fitting to me. As in life, black and white is rarely as simple as it seems.