At dawn, the lake’s placid waters mirrored a few high clouds and the pines on the opposite shore. A whisper of a breeze carried the mixed chorus of sweet bird songs. With a cup of steaming coffee in hand and binoculars around my neck, I was enveloped by the serenity of this heavenly place.
A screen door creaked and I looked to see my friend emerge from the cabin. With an experienced sailor’s eye, he looked skyward. Expecting a weather report, I was surprised when he said, “Grab the binoculars, Mike.”
I followed his gaze to the top of a nearby towering pine. The vibrant orange throat and chest of the warbler immediately caught my eye. I swung the binoculars into position, and the male Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca) came into focus. A triangular black face mask and crown contrasted with the bird’s orange-yellow neck and broad eyebrow.
Scores of wood warblers grace our skies every spring, and each has a distinct color pattern. Only the male Blackburnian warbler, though, has a bright orange throat.
From my vantage point below the bird, I could see the yellow wash on its lower breast give way to a white belly and vent. Parallel bold black streaks ran from its shoulder to its tail. A large white patch on its white wing was also in view. It had white outer edges on its tail feathers.
The Blackburnian was busy gleaning insects from high up in the spruce. These birds eat caterpillars and insects, often confining their feeding to the upper reaches of conifers or hardwoods. It is an ecological niche that is often ignored by other migratory birds.
The burnt orange throat marked this bird as a male. Females follow the same general color pattern, but the bright orange is replaced by a less intense peach.
Blackburnians winter in the mountains of South America, primarily the northern Andes and into Amazonia. Spring migration brings them over Central America, the Caribbean and Eastern United states.
Birds begin to drop out over the Appalachian Mountains, where they will nest in the cool mountain forests from Georgia to New York. Many more will breed in New England and the Great Lakes states. The remaining birds continue to breeding grounds in southern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.
During migration, these warblers can be seen in every Chesapeake watershed state. Breeding pairs are usually limited to the watershed’s western boundaries.
These treetop feeders also nest high in conifers and hardwoods. They construct cup nests of twigs and rootlets, lined with lichen, moss and animal hairs.
Blackburnian warblers don’t just eat spiders; they use their webs to secure the birds’ nests to the trees.
Wood warblers are usually small, and the diminutive Blackburnian is no exception. It is about 4.5 inches from beak to tail. The bird has a 9-inch wingspan and weighs less than half an ounce.
Although they are small, the males aggressively defend their territorial breeding grounds. But after the young have fledged, Blackburnians become more social and start to join flocks. During migration, they even join mixed flocks.
Once safely back home on their wintering grounds, though, they split off to live and forage in relative solitude.
The population of Blackburnian warblers appears to be stable. There is growing concern, though, at the loss of hemlock forest because of an imported invasive pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid. (Shenandoah National Park’s lovely Limberlost Trail, for example, was devastated by the pest, which killed all of the mature hemlocks. Some of these trees were up to 3 centuries old and stood more than 100 feet tall.)
The Blackburnian ignored the excited birder below. It continued to forage actively, at home 70 feet overhead. Somewhere nearby its mate was likely making a nest and preparing to add a new generation to the ranks of these tiny handsome birds.
There is much that sets the Blackburnian apart. Its unique coloration and unusual feeding locations are the most obvious. Its relatively small geographic distribution also makes the bird a highly valued species among birders.
Throughout my work career, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with some of the nation’s top elected officials and environmental leaders. Under up-close examination, they impressed me in equal measures with how ordinary they seemed and how exceptional they were. Certainly, they possessed qualities that set them apart, but mostly they were common people.
I watched the Blackburnian warbler continue its pursuit of a meal. Here was a “good bird,” but it was engaged in the most mundane activity. Like my well-known professional elites, this warbler was both highly prized and completely ordinary.
The warbler finally flew off in search of new feeding opportunities. Left behind was my sense that what we value is as much a matter of personal preference as it is of inherent exceptionalism.