Leave it to me, the one who writes mostly about easy-to-see birds in my yard, to vacation on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and have the best looks at a bird happen not at the National Seashore or at one of the great Mass Audubon properties there, but from the balcony of our timeshare!
Oh, we saw plenty of other birds during our trip (identified or not!), but the birds that put on the best show were warblers foraging for insects in a row of birch trees right on time share property. To make it even better, I was able to enjoy them at eye level from right outside my door on the second floor balcony. I even had a chance to view and take photographs while looking down on the birds! How often does that happen with most warblers?
While at least three different warblers were seen, the one that provided the best show was the Blackpoll Warbler. And whenever a bird gives me a great show like they did, I return the favor by learning more about them and sharing it here.
Most warblers become harder identify in fall (why else would Roger Tory Peterson have dedicated four pages of his field guide to "confusing fall warblers"?). And the fall Blackpoll Warbler is no exception, bearing little resemblance to its spring self. The namesake black cap and black-and-white streaking on the head and back are gone, and the bird is now olive colored above. But the streaks on the back are still there - just not black-and-white. These streaks, for me, make the fall blackpoll a little easier to identify.
There is lighter streaking on the sides and somewhat across the breast. The Warbler Guide (Stephenson and Whittle) notes that this streaking can be faint but is always present. I noticed that the birds had varying degrees of yellow on their breast. At first I thought I was seeing another species with a brighter yellow breast, but it was a blackpoll individual showing a little more yellow than the others. All had two strong wings bars.
At first glance, the fall blackpoll face seems non-descript but a closer look reveals an eyeline, a broken eyering, and a light stripe above the eye. It's amazing how much more you see on the warbler face when you really stop to study what's there!
I also got some good views underneath the bird, showing the white on the belly that extends through the vent area and undertail coverts. The undertail is also white and with darker tips. The legs are orangish.
I saw these blackpolls in mid-October on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, probably near the end of their fall migration in New England. It is here that they bulk up, feasting on insects and fruit, putting on as much body fat as they can in preparation for the next portion of their trip. This is where their story gets even more interesting: from these shores, they will begin a non-stop, 3-day flight over the Atlantic Ocean to reach their wintering grounds in northern South America.
Some of these birds may have nested in the higher elevations of New York and New England, but the great majority bred in the boreal forests of Canada. Their migration from breeding grounds to wintering grounds is nearly 2,000 miles each way, making their migration one of the longest migratory journey of any small songbird.
I feel very lucky to see any bird this close up. I love the birds that I see while traveling, and those seen that are in the midst of a migratory journey. And I especially love it when a bird has a fascinating backstory. I loved observing and photographing these Blackpoll Warblers as they foraged nearby, almost close enough to touch. But the amaze-o-meter went off the charts when I learned later about the journey they were just about to embark on.
To think these little creatures that shared time and space with me would soon take flight for a 2,000 mile journey over open ocean. There would be no rest stops for them, no GPS to navigate with, and no lunch breaks. Their wings will beat for 72 hours straight. Some may have made the journey before; for others, born a mere 2-3 months earlier, it would be a maiden voyage. Many will not survive. It's astonishing that any do when you think of the size of their body in relation to the length of their journey. But as technological advances allow us to track smaller and smaller birds, stories of extreme migrations are beginning to emerge, and we continue to be surprised and amazed at what birds are able to accomplish.