Cape May warbler has its own part to play in spring’s avian orchestra

The Cape May warbler (male shown here) is the only warbler with a semi-tubular tongue, which it uses to access hummingbird feeders, the nectar from flowers and the juices of fruit such as grapes. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

I stood on the boardwalk and turned to the early morning sun. I felt the warmth on my face and closed my eyes. The dawn chorus of birds enveloped me.

As I listened intently, I could make out several familiar songs. There was a hermit thrush nearby, singing its fluted notes. To my left an indigo bunting whistled its complex tune. Somewhere behind me came the rattling voice of a downy woodpecker. There were warbles and chirps and slurred cheeps.

Above me and quite close by, I could hear a softer tsee, repeated four to five times. With eyes now wide open, I tilted my head toward the lisped notes. There it was, with a heavily streaked yellow breast and a tell-tale chestnut face patch. This tiny songster was a Cape May warbler (Setophaga trigina).

For centuries, humans have celebrated the arrival of spring with its extraordinary and all-pervasive renewal of life. Flowers blossom, trees leaf out, fawns are born, and most delightful of all, birds sing. A few common species like cardinals and wrens sing all year long, but for most avian species, song is restricted to the breeding season. To hear it in its full glory, listen at dawn when male birds fill the air with their lively tunes.

It was the first week of May. We had arrived at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens a little before 7 a.m., and a kind ranger let us in a bit early. The National Park Service property is an oasis in Washington, DC. Bordering the Anacostia River and directly opposite the National Arboretum, the park has a tidal river, marshes and a host of trees surrounding the ponds. Its rich and varied habitats make it an ideal spot for birding.

To see the park’s lovely aquatic plants and their bountiful blooms of water lilies and lotus flowers, come in midsummer. But to enjoy its soundscape, come in late April or early May, and be sure to come when it opens.

The Cape May warbler doesn’t have the loveliest voice in the forest, but its notes seemed to perfectly complement its companions. The dawn chorus of mixed species that morning would rival any symphony orchestra in richness, complexity and pure musicality.

The Cape May was just passing through on his way to his breeding grounds in the coniferous boreal forests of Canada and the northernmost tier of the United States, from Michigan to Maine. We see these warblers in the Chesapeake region just briefly each year. During the spring migration they come through in early May. In the fall, they will fly through the watershed in September.

Cape May warblers preferentially nest in spruce trees. These birds are canopy specialists, living atop the trees where they build their nests, raise their young, and find most of their food. Their reproductive success largely mirrors the boom-or-bust cycles of the spruce bud worm, a widespread pest that Cape Mays consume in vast numbers. Most warblers lay two to three eggs each year, but the Cape May will brood six or more during years with abundant bud worms.

These warblers also eat invertebrates like spiders and insects. Unique among warblers, the Cape May has a semi-tubular tongue, which it uses to access hummingbird feeders, the nectar from flowers and the juices of fruit such as grapes.

As the days shorten in September, Cape May warblers return to their winter grounds in the Caribbean. (The bird gets its name from the location where it was first identified.)

The male Cape May is a brightly colored chap. His yellow breast and sides are heavily streaked with black. The black continues down through its white belly before yielding to its all-white vent. He has a brilliant yellow neck ring that starts with a bold throat patch and narrows as it reaches the back of the neck. A bright chestnut “ear” patch is eye-catching. He has a dark cap and a thin black line runs through the eye. A slightly down-curved bill sets it apart from all other warblers. With a greenish mantle and a fat white wing bar, the Cape May’s color palette is complete.

In contrast to the male’s complex color pattern, the female Cape May is much duller. Indistinct streaking and faint hints of yellow make the female a much tougher field ID. During the fall migration the male, too, has lost its most distinctive coloration. Even worse, he doesn’t sing in the fall.

After feasting my eyes on the male, I again closed my eyes. From near and far the bird songs continued. I stopped struggling to identify species by ear and just listened. For a few moments at least, the world drifted away as I was transported by the avian music. I wanted to soak it in and make sure that I would remember this moment.

When the cacophony of modern life seems overwhelming, this memory of exuberant bird song will be the perfect antidote.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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