Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: Watching for Warblers

Spring not only brings a beautiful array of colors to the Meadowlands in the form of flowers, trees and shrubs. It also brings out our beloved flying jewels, the warblers. Awaited by birders from all over New Jersey, warblers are some of the smallest birds found in North American. They are known for their amazing migrations, travelling from South America to as far away as northern Canada and all the way back again.

These beautiful, tiny, fidgety birds seem to never stop moving, springing from branch to branch and tree to tree.  You could find Warblers in the tops of the highest trees and some species living on the ground, hidden in the thickets and brambles of their particular habitat. There are about 16 warbler species that breed in New Jersey and up to 35 species pass through during May, some much more common than others.

Warblers come in a kaleidoscope of colors, from the breathtaking brilliant orange-and-black plumage of the Blackburnian Warbler to the beautiful yellow of the masked warbler of wet thickets, the Common Yellowthroat . The best time to find warblers is in April and May as they travel to their nesting grounds to the North, but don’t expect to see these little gems on your backyard birdfeeders.

For the most part warblers are insect eaters, migrating from Central and South America for the insect explosion in North America. You can make your backyard a rest stop on their long journey north by using native plants in the backyard and keeping a pond or birdbath ready for them so they can rest , refuel and continue on to their breeding grounds.

By the time the leaves are on the trees most warbler watching becomes warbler listening, or what is known as birding by ear. The tiny little marvels might be far up in the canopy or tucked into heavy cover and the only way to identify them will be learning their calls . There are many bird call CDs and birding APPS on the market that can help you get started. Just so you don’t feel overwhelmed try to learn a few calls at a time, if you try to remember all of them you won’t recall any when you get out into the field.

You still have time to begin your warbler call schooling so put those Bruce Springsteen CDs away for a while and get your warbler songs playing.   Now, I’m the first to admit that remembering all the songs and calls of our wonderful warbler species can be a pretty intimidating task. Just when I think I got many of them wedged in my mind a Common Yellow throat makes some strange sound that I never heard before and then it’s right back to my Birding by Ear CDs for me.

Once I pulled up to my local gas station with the call of the Black and White Warbler playing on my car CD player. The attendant looked around and asked me if he wanted me to check my fan belt.  “No thanks, just a squeaky warbler” I said. ”It’s under warranty.”  Good thing I didn’t have the American Bittern playing. He would have called a tow-truck…

Next thing to do is to get the right binoculars and practice! Most warblers stay perched for no more than a second or two so it is critical to have the right pair of optics and learn how to use them. Having a good pair of binoculars will mean the difference between saying “Oh my, that is a beautiful Magnolia Warbler” or “Oh My, I didn’t see that little bird at all.” Without getting into all the details of what is the right optics for you, generally speaking  a good pair of 8×42 binoculars that you can focus fast and have a wide field of view will do the trick, and don’t be afraid to get outside and practice .

Pick up a good field guide!  There are some great field guides for Warblers on the market. They not only show them in all their different plumages but also will highlight when specific species might arrive in our area. It is well worth having one in your on your coffee table or in your pack this spring.  Sibley has a great quickie fold out guide to warblers which is a must have for every warbler wizard.

If you want to venture from your backyard and enjoy the spring warbler spectacle in all its glory we have some wonderful areas within the Meadowlands that are sure to please the warbler lover in all of us.

Losen Slote Creek Park, located in Little Ferry, is my favorite little warbler heaven. It is a rich and diverse environment which supports many migratory songbirds. This small, out of the way bird sanctuary is a great place to see many wonderful warbler species.

Spring is a magical time of year, when all life is renewed. And nothing makes it more wondrous than getting out and seeing these winged beauties return from such a perilous and arduous journey. Get out and see them for yourself!

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