Warblers? August? What??

Cerulean Warbler Photo by Charles Grisham

Cerulean Warbler Photo by Charles Grisham

Ruffner Report – August 22, 2015
Warblers? August? What??

The Bird Call Blog

by Scot Duncan

Photos by Charles Grisham & Bob Farley

So, a weak front passed through the area Thursday night, and I wasn’t going to get all excited about it, but on Thursday evening my buddy Charles Grisham texted me that he was seeing lots of “something that isn’t rain” on the Nexrad radar. Stuck as I was in a parent meeting at my daughter’s school, I was all too happy to check out the Huntsville radar myself on my phone. Sure enough, birds were moving across the Southeast behind the front. Not the massive clouds of migrants that we can see on radar from mid-September through late October, but enough to get birding addicts like Charles and me out to see what might be passing through the next day. (Charles, by the way, doesn’t bird with binoculars, but instead “shoots” birds with a camera that is as long as my arm and weighs about as much as a Snow Goose. His shots are incredible – check them out at Alabama Birder.)

Prothonotary Warbler Photo by Charles Grisham

Prothonotary Warbler Photo by Charles Grisham

So yesterday (Friday morning, 8/21) I was able to bird Ruffner Mountain Nature Center Parking lot for 25 minutes before spending the rest of the day in oh-SO-very-exciting meetings (not). It was pretty quiet, but I was excited to find a Prothonotary Warbler. This was only the third individual of this species every reported at Ruffner to the best of my knowledge – the other two were on the same day this past September. Prothonotaries (I think that’s the plural spelling) breed throughout much of the eastern US, but seem to avoid the areas I usually bird in Alabama in migration – areas around Birmingham. By extrapolation, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that in migration they stick to the lowlands where the rivers are, which stands to reason for a bird formerly referred to as the Golden Swamp Warbler.

Hoping that birds would still be on the move last (Friday) night, I got to Ruffner on Saturday morning about 6:25 a.m. The air was cool and thick with humidity, but it was pleasant enough. In the parking lot area the most excitement I could muster was a mob of about 15 ravenous Red-eyed Vireos swarming from canopy to canopy, and a single Black-and-White Warbler the briefly tried to keep up (bark-gleaning, it seems, requires more discipline and focus than leaf-gleaning).

I then hiked to the ridge and in the spot known as “The Gap” where migrants often accumulate. It was then the birding went from dull to dramatic. I honed in on a flock of calling chickadees and nuthatches (our noisy resident insectivores often seem to attract migrants), and soon found myself gawking in one view of my binoculars at the same time 3 warblers: a bright male Blue-winged Warbler and a male and female Cerulean. The flock offered far more birds than I could keep up with, but by the time the flock passed out of range, it had produced 11 species of warbler, plus several vireo and tanager species.


Golden Winged Warbler Photo by Charles Grisham

Golden Winged Warbler Photo by Charles Grisham

The highlight was a GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER. For those of you new to birding, the GWWA is a species whose populations have tanked in the past few decades, and even active birding-addicts such as myself may go a year or two without seeing one. This bird was the farthest south one has been reported this fall on eBird. I picked up on fragments of the flock several more times as they wandered around The Gap area, but by about 9 am the flock had dissipated and birds seemed to be feeding on their own or foraging in pairs and trios.

The best laugh of the day involved the Golden-wing. After my big encounter with the flock, Charles called me to check in and see what I was having. I answered the phone pleased that I’d soon be bragging about “my” Golden-winged (Ceruleans and Blue-wings are definitely worth bragging about most of the time. But not to Charles. On Monte Sano where he birds, these species are thicker than House Sparrows at a Burger King). “Hey, what you seeing? – I had a Golden Wing!” I announced smugly before he could say anything. “Me too!!!” he shouted. We both laughed. But that’s not even the funniest part…

Charles related that he did some “spishing” and tried out his Screech-Owl imitation whistle to encourage his Golden-wing to drop a little lower in the canopy. It had worked just briefly enough for him to get some stellar shots. I lamented that I should have tried that since I had only a brief look at my Golden Wing, and instead I just peered through the canopy at it in stunned silence. I had Charles on speaker phone so I could talk to him and bird the small flock I had wandered into. Knowing that, he joked that he could help me out. Suddenly Charles was spishing and offering over speaker-phone the most pathetic rendition of a screech-owl call that I’ve been unfortunate enough to endure. As I looked around to see if there were any birds responding to this 21st century innovation in team-birding, I spotted a bird dropping down to head-level just a few meters away. Binoculars lifted…focused… and wow! – the male Golden-winged Warbler!! Understandably, it took me a moment to convince Charles that I was really looking at a Golden-wing and not just pulling his leg. But then we laughed hard and wondered to each other whether the bird had responded to his speaker-phone calls, or if it was just coincidence. Given the quality of his owl whistle, bless his heart, I’m leaning towards coincidence. Sorry, Charles.

Dr. Scot Duncan is an ecologist and author living in Birmingham, Alabama.



Scot Duncan leads a field trip during this past May’s Birmingham Audubon Mountain Workshop in Mentone, AL. Photo by Bob Farley.

Screech Owl Photo by Charles Grisham

Screech Owl Photo by Charles Grisham

POST UPDATE: August 25th, 2015

“Update: I got to bird with Charles recently at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. I was chagrined to find that his screech-owl imitation is a LOT better in person. Charles, my apologies, Sir. LOL.”

Full bird list from August 22nd is below…

  • Mourning Dove 8 7:23 AM, (33.55839, -86.70715)
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird 3 6:50 AM, (33.55880, -86.70696)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker 2 6:34 AM, (33.55887, -86.70714)
  • Downy Woodpecker 2 6:56 AM, (33.55876, -86.70723)
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee 3 7:09 AM, (33.55933, -86.70745)
  • Great Crested Flycatcher 1 7:23 AM, (33.55856, -86.70724)
  • White-eyed Vireo 3 6:35 AM, (33.55883, -86.70719)
  • Yellow-throated Vireo 2 9:27 AM, (33.55868, -86.70753)
  • Red-eyed Vireo 25 6:38 AM, (33.55880, -86.70710)
  • American Crow 1 6:56 AM, (33.55876, -86.70723)
  • Carolina Chickadee 6 6:41 AM, (33.55859, -86.70731)
  • Tufted Titmouse 7 6:44 AM, (33.55870, -86.70725)
  • White-breasted Nuthatch 3 6:32 AM, (33.55882, -86.70722)
  • Brown-headed Nuthatch 1 6:39 AM, (33.55880, -86.70710)
  • House Wren 1 6:38 AM, (33.55880, -86.70710)
  • Carolina Wren 4 6:30 AM, (33.55836, -86.70745)
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 5 6:32 AM, (33.55871, -86.70723)
  • Eastern Bluebird 2 6:38 AM, (33.55880, -86.70710)
  • American Robin 1 6:35 AM, (33.55883, -86.70719)
  • Worm-eating Warbler 1 8:03 AM, (33.55910, -86.70410)
  • Golden-winged Warbler 1 8:03 AM, (33.55910, -86.70410)
  • Blue-winged Warbler 1 8:03 AM, (33.55910, -86.70410)
  • Black-and-white Warbler 3 6:44 AM, (33.55873, -86.70731)
  • Hooded Warbler 2 6:50 AM, (33.55880, -86.70696)
  • American Redstart 1 8:03 AM, (33.55910, -86.70410)
  • Cerulean Warbler 2 8:03 AM, (33.55910, -86.70410)
  • Northern Parula 1 8:03 AM, (33.55910, -86.70410)
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler 1 8:03 AM, (33.55910, -86.70410)
  • Pine Warbler 1 8:03 AM, (33.55910, -86.70410)
  • Black-throated Green Warbler 1 8:03 AM, (33.55912, -86.70413)
  • Eastern Towhee 1 6:32 AM, (33.55877, -86.70720)
  • Summer Tanager 2 6:39 AM, (33.55880, -86.70710)
  • Scarlet Tanager 1 6:41 AM, (33.55855, -86.70734)
  • Northern Cardinal 2 6:30 AM, (33.55836, -86.70745)
  • Indigo Bunting 2 6:58 AM, (33.55877, -86.70723)
  • House Finch 2 6:50 AM, (33.55880, -86.70696)
  • American Goldfinch 3 6:58 AM, (33.55877, -86.70723)