Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Adventures in Recursive Mimicry

Since moving to Florida, I've become enthralled by the wonder that is the White-eyed Vireo. Its bouncy little song -- "Pick up the beer, CHICK!" -- was one of the first new bird songs I learned here, and its gaudy yellow spectacles one of the first field marks.

Last week, I learned something even cooler about this song: not all White-eyed Vireos have the same one. The first and last notes are often imitations of other bird calls. On a birding field trip last weekend, our leader pointed out opening notes of White-eyed Vireo songs that were striking imitations of Summer Tanager call notes, and final notes that sounded like warbler chips. And despite the nearly endless variation in possible sounds to mimic, all these vireos produce that distinct, loud, and bouncy melody. Wow.

I thought about this again this morning when I returned home from a run, and heard something that sounded like the water-droplet call note of a Summer Tanager -- followed by that bouncy little melody. "White-eyed Vireo doing a Summer Tanager mash-up," I thought, feeling quite smart.

I stopped and listened. The bird did it again. And again. Then he switched to a completely different sequence of repeated trills and warbles.

It wasn't a White-eyed Vireo. Or a Summer Tanager. It was a Northern Mockingbird imitating a White-eyed Vireo imitating a Summer Tanager.

How crazy is that??

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Love the Pain of Warbler Neck!

A Yellow-throated Warbler. The ones with yellow lores, like this one, are native to Florida; the ones with white lores are migrants. So this isn't a migrant. Darn.

THE WARBLERS ARE BACK! And I am itchy and in pain, and it's all their fault.

News of interesting migrants started trickling in a few weeks ago--the master birders of the area, of course, managed to find the season's first waterthrushes and Worm-eating Warblers way before the rest of us. But their good news inspired me to go out and look for migrating goodies.

Among the most sought-after migrating warblers around here is the relatively plain but elusive Kentucky Warbler. I'd seen one only once before, so I decided I had to find one. So two Sundays ago, I went to Bolen Bluff (which has the double advantage of being both a migrant trap and being only a fifteen-minute drive from home) to see what I could find.

When I arrived, I saw lots of critters flying around, both near and far. Unfortunately, about half of them were mosquitos. And mosquitos LOVE me. When I'm around, they won't be deterred by long sleeves or DEET. I'm like a walking French Laundry for mosquitos.

Whatever. Chip notes were echoing temptingly from the trees, and I was there to find warblers. Something dark shot across the trail and landed in a tree only feet away from me: a Veery. Not a warbler, but still a cool migrant.

My walk, accompanied by the ugly buzz of feeding mosquitos, yielded a Northern Waterthrush, two Black-and-white Warblers, two Hooded Warblers, several Northern Parulas, a bold little Ovenbird, an American Redstart--and best of all, my Kentucky!

Bolen Bluff had proven so productive, I decided to go by again with a friend last Sunday. One thing I love about birding Paynes Prairie is that it's never the same place twice. This time, there were flycatchers in abundance (Acadians and some other thing that looked a little like an Eastern Pewee, but wasn't), as well as several Summer Tanagers in strange transitional plumages that made them look quite exotic. My friend and I scored a bright Prothonotory Warbler, and best of all, a bright Blue-winged Warbler who foraged calmly a mere six feet off the ground for several minutes while we watched him, only yards away. This was a lifer for my friend, and a second-sighting-ever for me, and we were both enchanted.

Then he flew closer still, and was only about ten feet from us--at the exact moment some obnoxious insect decided to crawl up my friend's pant leg and bite her repeatedly. This sent her screaming into the woods to find and remove the thing, while that Blue-winged Warbler sat nonplussed only feet away. Sometimes I think the birds and bugs have some kind of deal worked out with each other.

I had left a voicemail with another friend asking her to come with us, but she only got it yesterday. So we decided to go out this morning (both of us were free) and we headed to Palm Point, where a few lucky souls had seen seventeen warbler species in the last few days! When we got there, we found something nearly as good: a couple of the area's master birders, looking for the same things we were. Our official quarry was a male Cerulean Warbler that several people had seen: it would have been a lifer for both me and the friend who came with me, and a year bird for everyone else.

I didn't get the Cerulean (I had to leave before everyone else, so I'm sure they got it, since that's how things normally work), but I was around to see trees full of warblers: Yellows, Prairies, Yellow-throateds, American Redstarts...all the usual fall suspects, but all gorgeous and fun to watch. And all several stories overhead.

Now my neck is sore from being bent backwards for several minutes at a time in pursuit of tiny backlit things in the treetops, and I'm covered with bug bites. But it'll be worth it if I could get a Cerulean. There's still a month of fall migration left, and I'll be waiting.