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Looking for warblers in all the right places
by Karen Benson - Texas Master Naturalist
May 08, 2012 | 721 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kay Past photo
A tiny Least Bittern fishes for top minnows at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas. Least Bitterns are charming little hunters and move around the cattail stems like slow-motion robots in search of prey items.
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The first week in May has to be one of the “all-time best times” of the year. That is if you are a birdwatcher. Excuse me, a birder! Birders dream of going out and seeing lots of wonderful, colorful, not-often-seen species. And this is exactly what happens along the Texas coast in May. Lots of splendid birds are passing through on their way to the northern forests. And many of these gems are warblers.

What is a warbler? Well, by definition, a warbler (also called a wood- warbler) is a bird that can sing. A songbird is usually described as a small bird with a high-pitched, somewhat intricate song. Wood-warblers are small birds, weighing only a third of an ounce. They are insectivorous, active and colorful. There are some 60 species of wood-warblers breeding in North America, north of the Mexican border, and another 50 or so species in Central and South America.

Warblers generate excitement. One writer describes the allure of warblers as “like catnip for birdwatchers!” And indeed, the intoxication of a warbler hunt is very like the excitement a cat feels in the presence of its favorite herb. We warbler hunters are definitely on the “qui vive.” Our eyes are focused on color and movement. And we feel a strong compulsion to go looking for them, wherever they might possibly be. And we almost turn somersaults with joy when we find them!

So it is not surprising that, when I invited three of my girl-birder-friends to go on a warbler hunt, they all responded with an excited yes! We decided on May the second, a convenient date for us and in the height of the warbler migration.

Our plan was to go where the warblers were expected. That means close to the coast, where the migrants, flying across the Gulf of Mexico, stop to rest and refuel before heading further inland and northward.

There are several known “hot-spots” along the Texas coast that routinely provide respite for incoming, exhausted migrants. These are the places birders know to go to find those wonderful, colorful warblers that everyone wants to see.

Premier among these locales is a tiny, swampy spot behind what was once known as Paradise Motel in Port Aransas. Early on, it was dubbed “Paradise Pond,” and most birders knew of it. The winning team of the 1999 Texas Birding Classic (a major annual birding competition) was the “Wild Birders” sponsored by WildBird magazine. They donated their $25,000 prize money toward acquisition and preservation of Paradise Pond. Other donors chipped in to buy signage and boardwalks. In 2002, it was dedicated as the Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond birding site. It is now an internationally known birding location.

Paradise Pond was our first destination. We birder ladies descended on the pond almost like the warblers we hoped to see. All excitement and anticipation! Of course, the birds were looking for food and water and rest after a long flight over the Gulf. We were looking to see color and rarities.

And we were in luck! The first bird we encountered was a warbler, a Northern Parula. It was just a few feet from us, gleaning insects from some low-growing plants. It was a male, based on the black and reddish brown crescent on its breast. He was very obliging and quite unfazed by our attentions!

We went on to see and hear Eastern Wood-Pewees (flycatchers who whistle out their name in a sort of mournful “pee-uh wheee”), and Gray Catbirds and orioles and buntings and, yes, more warblers! Perhaps the most delightful warbler sighting was of a Nashville Warbler taking a bath at one of the drip-puddles. It made me cooler just watching it!

Another birding site beckoned. It was the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, located next to the water treatment plant in Port Aransas. This location was a cattail marsh with acres of shallow water — and lots of wading and water birds. There were cormorants, turtles, herons and egrets, spoonbills, ducks and even a very large alligator.

But the species that charmed us all was a tiny heron-like bird. Right next to the boardwalk, just a few feet from where we stood, was a patient fisherman: a Least Bittern. He was clinging to the stems of cattails with his very dexterous feet. (Are ankles supposed to bend outward like that?) Just out of reach was a school of top-minnows. If he stretched out his neck to maximum length, which he did several times, he could get within six inches of catching a fish. But the fish would come no closer. It was as if they knew to stay at least a foot away from the cattail stems. Likely, the ones that didn’t instinctively stay 12 inches away from cattails had already been eaten by bitterns, and only the “smart” minnows were left!

All in all, it was a good birding trip. I hope many of you will also check out Port Aransas soon! If you’d like to see our trip list, go to www.coastalbendnaturalist.com and click on the link “What’s being seen.”
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