Ralph Gardner Jr.: Watching for warblers a joyous - and competitive - rite of spring

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GHENT, N.Y. — If you're looking for a safe, socially distanced way to enjoy nature there's probably nothing better than bird watching.

I'll admit I'm prejudiced. Indeed, I fear that I may have started to go overboard. However, the beauty of birding is that there's no such thing as a lethal dose.

I also share the blame with my daughter who's been sheltering with us and has come down with a severe case of birding. I suppose I'm somewhat to blame because I've been encouraging her since she was a small child. Perhaps someone should have tried to stage an intervention when she asked for a 14-hour online Cornell Ornithology Lab warbler identification course for her birthday.

For those whose interest in birds is rational or perhaps even nonexistent, warblers are small, colorful birds that are returning to our area or passing through on their way to Canada from as far south as Central and South America.

It's sometimes hard to tell them apart. And they don't make the job any easier because not only are they tiny but often furtive, flitting from one branch to another in the tree canopy. If they pose any risk it's only to increase your odds of suffering a stiff neck as you try to follow their progress with your binoculars while they gorge on seeds and insects and you attempt to commit to memory such details as whether you spied a chestnut cheek, possibly signifying a Cape May warbler, or a chestnut streak which would suggest a chestnut-sided warbler.

Once reasonably confident of what you saw you rush to your bird guide to confirm the sighting before you forget everything about their appearance that you thought you'd committed to memory but apparently hadn't.

And a new unnecessarily competitive element has been added to the process ever since I signed up for eBird. That's a website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where you can register your sightings, see what your neighbors have spotted and — here's where it gets competitive — what date they saw it.

I like to think of birdwatching (birding sounds too serious and self-important for me) as an almost spiritual practice. So it's with some guilt that I rush to enter a sighting hoping I'm the first in our region for the current year.

I never am, of course. But I came close on May 2 with a Ruby-throated hummingbird. I was second only to Rich Guthrie, a bird expert who can frequently be heard on WAMC, Northeast Public Radio's Vox Pop, taking listener questions. Rich spotted his first hummer of the season on April 29 at the New Baltimore Yard in Greene County.

For the sake of full disclosure my wife and daughter saw the bird on May 2 when it went straight to where I'd hung one of our bright red hummingbird feeders last summer. It may as well have been announcing, "I'm back. Where's the grub?"

I didn't see the tiny bird myself until the following morning after I'd made my first batch of nectar for the season — boiling four cups of water to one cup sugar — and then hung and filled the feeders.

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I can't say for sure whether the same birds return every year. It's remarkable to think they could migrate from the Gulf of Mexico directly to my feeders without Google Maps. But I swear they sit and watch me while I hang the feeders, then swoop down, wings humming as they hover over the portals, within a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

One of the benefits of registering your sightings on eBird — it's free by the way — is that you're creating a record so you can track the first date you spotted a particular species on any given year. For example, in 2014 and 2016 I saw my first scarlet tanager, a flaming scarlet bird jet-black, on May 9. This year it was May 11.

However, 2020 marked a first for a half-dozen types of warblers, my ambition fueled by the presence and expertise of my daughter. To be honest she spotted most of them first, among them two blackburnian warblers in a tree right behind our house. They're black and white birds distinguished by their flaming orange neck and throats.

Among my proudest discoveries this season came after I saw what I assumed was a nuthatch, a common blue, white and black feeder bird, on the other side of our pond. But it never hurts to look and it turned out to be a strikingly handsome blue warbler with a distinctive black throat. My well-thumbed 1980 Roger Tory Peterson "A Field Guide to the Birds" east of the Rockies identified it as a black-throated blue warbler.

By the way, if you've already stopped reading I don't hold it against you. My wife would commiserate. She's had to listen to the endless reports my daughter and I share with each other whenever we return from the woods.

My best sighting so far this season — while stipulating that all birds are pretty cool (when was the last time you flew under your own power) — came when I saw a torpedo-shaped black and white bird, at least that's how he looked from below, with a distinctive chestnut throat and chest.

I also have a free birding app on my phone called Merlin, another Cornell Lab initiative. By answering a few questions — location, date, size, main colors and whether the bird was swimming, eating at a feeder, in the trees, etc .— it creates a list of possible birds. I've found the app to be hit and miss but on this occasion it came up with a bay-breasted warbler.

That seemed unlikely. An internet search described it as uncommon and a bit sluggish by hyperactive warbler standards. That part sounded right; it seemed to linger on branches. But it also engaged in acrobatic flycatching, which wasn't among its identifiers.

Further research suggested that if my identification was correct it was migrating through — from the tropics to its summer home in the spruce forest of Canada. My daughter, who was pleasantly jealous, suggested I check out eBird to see if anybody else had seen it locally. A few, very few, birders had suggesting I may not have been imagining it. And then later that afternoon, Lucy saw it, too.

As spring heads into summer, the trees leaf out, and hopefully the worlds starts to open back up, other things will compete for our attention. But for all the hardships this spring has wrought it has also delivered the welcome distraction of warblers, tiny repositories of color, light and life.

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