January in Ohio is seldom balmy. To the contrary, it is usually down right cold and frosty. It is definitely not the season, nor are temperatures in such a range to encourage an Ohio birder to think “warbler".
So, my surprise was considerable when I received a message that a Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus) was being observed at a feeding station in a nearby metropolitan cemetery. My first thought, “Are these people nuts?" Winter warblers, and a Pine Warbler in particular, are not all that common here. Even in the migration, Pine Warblers are a species you have to put some effort into finding.
Still, after a few days of repeated reports about this unusual winter sighting, my curiosity and a sense of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ took over. With a few hours to spare, I decided to verify this winter wonder for myself, and made the 30 miles drive to the cemetery.
The temperature was hovering around the 20 degree mark, but the sun was bright, the winds calm, all in all a good winter birding day. No other ‘binocular toting’ folks were to be seen when I arrived at the popular birding spot, so I had no idea where, when or if the warbler had put in an appearance on this particular morning. The most recent sightings reported the warbler favored a suet feeder, near a small pond in the cemetery. It had also been seen in an adjacent small grove of (what else) pine trees.
After checking out the pines and finding no birding activity, I opted to stake out the suet feeder. Within minutes I was being entertained by a large number of feeding, feuding nuthatches and woodpeckers, all competing for a dining spot at the large block of suet.
Diving in and out of the surrounding bushes and trees, I counted eight to ten Downy Woodpeckers. It really was impossible to get an accurate tally, because they zoomed in and out so swiftly I kept losing count. At a more sedate pace, a male and female Red-bellied Woodpecker repeatedly visited the suet to get their share of goodies.
Joining the woodpeckers were five or six Red-breasted Nuthatches, and a couple White-breasted Nuthatches. Behaving in a manner similar to the woodpeckers, the nuthatches were flashing in and out of the trees and diving back and forth to the large cake of suet. It was pure pandemonium, with woodpeckers diving down on nuthatches and vice versa.
At one point when there were four Downy Woodpeckers and three Red-breasted Nuthatches vying for suet, they all froze in place, indicative of a predator's presence. I searched the trees and found the culprit. Nearby, a Cooper's Hawk was perched in a deciduous tree, giving the area a steely-eyed once over. The hawk flew off after a few minutes, but the birds continued to sit in a frozen tableau on the suet, for several additional minutes. Then, one female downy began to dig into the suet, and soon the others followed suit.
Well, all this was very entertaining and I thoroughly enjoyed the avian antics, but my goal this morning was to find a Pine Warbler. In all the hub-bub of activity, no warbler had appeared. I checked out the pine trees again, and returned to the feeding area to test my patience once more.
After half-an-hour, the cold was becoming an obnoxious presence. I decided to walk around to get warm. This proved to be a good move. I walked a few yards around the pond and my eye caught movement around the rim of the pond. I noted a couple sparrow types flying down to scratch around in the frozen muck at the edge of the water. Checking them out with my binoculars, I was astonished to see a Song Sparrow, a White-throated Sparrow and a PINE WARBLER. I could not have been more surprised, or more pleased.
I watched the birds, scrutinizing the behavior of the Pine Warbler in particular. The bird continued to pick around in the softer mud and debris at the edge of the pond, occasionally darting back up into the bushes to take cover for a brief interval. Time and again the warbler returned to select morsels from the shoreline. At no time did he fly around the corner to the big, fat suet cake. Had I stayed watching for him there, I would have had a long, cold wait, and been very disappointed to boot.
Thankfully, this morning foray was satisfying and enjoyable, but that is not always the case. Bird watching is a crap shoot I guess. Sometimes we are successful, other times it is a bust. I wonder how many birds I have missed because I chose to walk the wrong path, or in this case, watched the suet cake instead of walking around, or just unwittingly walked right by a bird without seeing it? Guess, I will never know.
And, that is why I approach bird watching with the knowledge that many times when birding, the greatest pleasure comes from simply LOOKING FOR BIRDS to watch. I enjoy being outdoors. I enjoy the moment. And, if I am fortunate enough to find a few birds to observe and relish, it is icing on this birders cake!
Interested in learning more about birds and easy bird identification, visit http://www.easybirdidentification.com
Enjoy reading about birds and the way they act? Visit http://wwwmarjieseasybirdidentification.blogspot.com/
Marjie Gemmell was a naturalist for 21 years teaching bird identification classes to thousands of students and adults. Outside the classroom, Marjie shared her knowledge of birds and her bird watching skills leading bird walks, night hikes and birding tours.
Marjie has followed her avid quest to see and identify birds to nearly all the continents of the world, and in the process has seen 4,000 bird species.
Her greatest satisfaction comes from sharing her birding knowledge with others.