Birds occupy a place in our imagination like few other animals. They are colorful, have beautiful songs, and they can fly! Who doesn’t wish they could fly?
We eat them, decorate our bodies with their feathers, listen to their songs, and keep them as pets. In westerns the high-pitched keening cry of the Red-tailed Hawk symbolizes the openness and loneliness of the range, setting the mood and implying that the rugged, lone gunman is as comfortable on the dusty range as the hawk is in the air.
Traditional societies have based dances on the mating dances of birds, clothing has been influenced by the color and patterns of birds, and we assign symbolism to specific birds; doves for peace, hawks for aggression, eagles for freedom, the unfortunate dodo as a dead-end in stupidity, and many more.
Here in the US the we chose the Bald Eagle to symbolize our nation, choosing a bird that is at least as much of a scavenger as it is a hunter, over the objections of Benjamin Franklin. Make of that what you will.
Some birds live only a few years, others like parrots and albatrosses live as long as a healthy human. Many birds can “fly” under water as well as in the air, the Water Ouzel of the American West, Loons, Cormorants, and Gannets that plunge into the water like falling rockets, diving many meters down to chase fish. Some birds have given up the air entirely, Penguins retain their flight in the water, but the Ratities, an ancient lineage including Rheas in South America, Ostriches in Africa, Emus in Australia, and the extinct new Zealand Moa returned to their dinosaur origins, running at high speed on the ground, forgoing the air forever.
Corvids, crows and jays, Parrots, and Cockatoos are renowned for their intelligence, problem solving, and in the case of Corvids, tool use. These birds rival small children and chimpanzees in their mental abilities.
Birds also can tell us about changes in climate and the environment. Banding them allows for long-term identification of individuals. Feathers can be analyzed for isotope ratios, telling what the birds have eaten and where. Populations can be tracked to see how they respond to changes in environmental conditions.
I am not an ornithologist, I find birds to be largely mystifying. I don’t seem to have the ear necessary to distinguish species based on their calls, a vital component of birding. Despite this, I do greatly appreciate birds and try to photograph them when I can, in part to help me learn, in part because they are pretty, and in part because birds are often easier to see and are more prolific than many other animals.
Birding is a popular activity. Of all groups involved in conservation and outdoor activities, birders have the highest average income, and companies that make the high quality spotting scopes and binoculars necessary for this activity adjust their prices accordingly. Many of the most interesting and colorful birds are tiny and fast, necessitating patience and luck, or good equipment, or, most often, a combination of the two.
Warblers are popular birds to watch in New England. New World Warblers are an often colorful group of small passerines, commonly called “perching birds”. The name derives from their sparrow-like appearance. Many of the New World Warblers over-winter in the neo-tropics, flying up to New England as the weather warms and food becomes available here. Most of the ones I see are in the Septophaga genus, meaning “moth-eating”, though this is sometimes misreported as meaning “fly-eating”. Others fall into the Cardellina and Geothlypis genera. I am not sure what the origin of Cardellina is. Several of the birds in this genus are reddish or pink, and others have a lovely song, it may be a comment on a loose similarity to Cardinals. Geothlypis roughly means “earth warbler”, perhaps reflecting the essential silliness of many scientific names.
Over the last few years I have managed to take photos of a small number of them:
This lovely little Canada Warbler was on the ridge-line of Shenandoah National Park and didn’t care that I was nearby. I heard the song and had to hunt a little bit to find him.
This Common Yellow Throat followed me through the woods as I waded through ferns and sedges in a wet wooded meadow near my house. It didn’t seem afraid of me at all, more curious than anything. It kept the caterpillars in its beak, suggesting that there was a nest with young close by.
A few months back I heard a soft but rapid twittering in the woods on my morning walk. Over my head a flock of 5 or so little birds flitted back and forth faster than I could follow. One of them briefly touched down and held still for just long enough to snap this photo. From there I was able to figure out that they were Black-throated Green Warblers.
On our bird-banding day on Mt. Mansfield this little Black-throated Blue Warbler was found in the mist net.
The Yellow-rumped Warblers may be the easiest of the warblers to see. They range from California to New England and have been divided into several sub-species that are nearly indistinguishable to my eye. The eastern variant is known as the Myrtle Warbler (Setophaga coronata coronata) and the western variant as Audubon’s Warbler (Setophaga coronata auduboni), but they are both Yellow-rumped Warblers to me.
Finally this small Yellow Warbler was in an apple tree in deep shade. It sat and watched me for several minutes, then flitted away.
Learning these birds has given me a greater appreciation for them, although I must admit that the task of learning these little guys would have been much more difficult if I couldn’t take photos of them and take the time to look closely at their details.