Homecoming (A Memory of May 2001)

If you are a birder, then you know that the month of May is incontestably the high point of the year. And if you have been a birder for a while, then you probably have come to view the month of May with something that borders on religious devotion. Not religious solemnity, mind you: there is none of the somberness of Ramadan, nor even the anticipation of Advent. Instead, the month of May is one big party, a gala event, a rip-roarin good time — the Mardi Gras of birding, and the ornithological equivalent of the old Jewish tradition of Jubilee.

Come May, an ordinary walk in the park is like Christmas morning, or Super Bowl Sunday, or whatever high point in the year you can think of. May is the month for big days and bird festivals. Bird clubs offer bird walks on a nearly daily basis during the month of May. And it makes perfectly good sense that the wildly successful World Series of Birding is held each year in May.

Every eastern city, it seems, has a special spot for May migrants. There is Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, Central Park in New York, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. My favorite spot, for reasons that are no less objective than they are sentimental, is Pittsburgh's Frick Park. It was here that I cut my teeth on birding in the 1980s (hence, the sentimental attachment), and it is here where the dedicated birder can still find close to thirty species of warblers on a good day in May (the objective half of the equation).

In the early 1980s, I visited Frick Park at least a hundred times per year — on the weekends and during vacations, of course; before and after school on the weekdays; and, truth be told, during school every now and then. During the late 80s, I tried to get back five or six times a year, for old times sake. By the 1990s, I was lucky to make one or two trips a year. And in May of 2001, I returned for the first time in more than three full years.

The descent into Pittsburgh recalled my first visit to the tropics: dense cloud cover down to around a thousand feet, then at last a clearing, then overwhelming verdure. How many Pittsburghers, I wonder, realize that they live in the midst of one of the most stunning humid subtropical forests on the planet?

It was misty, and already muggy, when I arrived at Frick Park early the next morning. A puddle stretched half-way across the parking lot, all the way to the clogged up drain by the limb that had fallen in last night's storm. Darkness transitioned to daylight without so much as a hint of sunrise.

I trekked to the "Meadow" — a clearing atop a wooded knoll at the park's north end.

How odd to have fancied this place a meadow! It is a hopelessly dense tangle of may-apple, mockorange, and burdock; of tuliptree saplings and great lattices of grapevines; of woodpeckers and wood warblers. It reminded me more of a giant treefall in the rain-forest than of a meadow.

A low fog was rolling into the park and obscuring the tops of the highest trees. My jeans were soaked up to the knees (that's what you get for taking the shortcut through the wet grass by the parking lot), and moisture condensed on the eyepieces of my binoculars (I guess I had forgotten about the virtues of a rainguard in all those years away from Pennsylvania).

It was starting to rain — as if that made any difference, and the dawn chorus was cranking into high gear, in spite of the morning shower. A Northern Cardinal whistled wildly from its midstory perch at the edge of the Meadow, and a Gray Catbird blathered nonsense in a tangle of poison ivy. Back in the woods a ways, a silvery-syrinxed but solitary Swainson's Thrush performed a one-bird duet — part piccolo, part clarinet.

I thought back to a morning (a rainy morning, come to think of it) that I spent in Princeton's Institute Woods with a visiting birder from England almost fifteen years ago. He likened that suburban second-growth woodlot, with its bounty of birdsong — to a tropical rainforest, which seemed a bit extreme at the time. Today his declaration struck me as eminently reasonable.

Yank! Yank!

I drew a blank and then reminded myself: They sound totally different out West. White-breasted Nuthatches in Reno belong to the altogether different-sounding tenuissima subspecies. (According to the philologists, a tenuis is a voiceless stop, a short series of which happens to comprise the contact call of tenuissima.)

Yank! Yank!

Just to be sure — and with some amount of self-consciousness — I peered around the trunk of a dying old elm. No question about it: this was an honest-to-goodness White-breasted Nuthatch. A mildly peeved and waterlogged nuthatch, but a nuthatch all the same.

Ticka ... ticka ... tick ... tick ... T'T'T'T'T'T'T'T!!

No question about this one! Several years had elapsed since my last encounter, but it is hard to forget the tripartite accelerando of the Tennessee Warbler: tentative at the out-set, then measured and methodical, then an outburst of piercing staccato.

I was determined to see the bird.

It was up in a cherry tree with a thousand pearly blossoms and a great company of aphids, leafhoppers, and caterpillars — a culinary bonanza as far as the warbler was concerned. I got on the bird fairly quickly and was bowled over by its beauty: the color of faded pewter about the face and crown; and the color of freshly mown grass across the back and wings, with a tinge of brighter kelly-green on the uppertail coverts. It was as though this hungry insectivore were the inspiration — the palette — for the whole fresco of grays and greens of this soggy morning.

Other warblers flitted about the flower-filled cherry tree: a Black-and-white Warbler (wheezy, wheezy, wheezy) on a high bough, an American Redstart (tweety tweety cheeto!) near the crown, and a Chestnut-sided Warbler (pleas' pleas' pleas' t'-MEETcha!) down low. Then: itchy, itchy, Ichiro! Back in the woods a ways (of course), but worth searching for.

A flash of white in the outspread tail was probably sufficient for identification, but I desired more. A mat of prickly greenbriar prevented closer approach, so I had to wait it out. The bird poked at a shelf fungus and then turned right toward me: its cowl as black as India ink, its yellow jowls like a glowing ember. A thought occurred to me: "They oughtta make you pay to view this bird." For now, though, Hooded Warblers are free.

The rain reverted to a drizzle, and I continued to reacquaint myself with old friends: a pointy-billed Worm-eating Warbler in a clump of bittersweet, a wispy-voiced Bay-breasted Warbler up in the canopy, and a lethargic Canada Warbler at a stream crossing. I bumped into some old human friends in the park this morning, too: the retired attorney (now a full-time raconteur); the substitute teacher (still fanatical about warblers); and the park naturalist (she made the call on the morning's first Blackpoll Warbler).

I met new friends, too: the deep-sea cartographer (fanatical about everything); the dentist ("Pleased to mee... there's a Black-throated Blue!" — I never did catch his name); and the visiting birder from Colorado Springs ("Don't we know each other from somewhere?"). A Red-shouldered Hawk by the nature center was a new acquaintance of sorts, as well. It was my first record for the species in Frick Park (apparently, sightings in the city have increased quite a bit since my day), and it was in a plumage I had never before encountered: strikingly pale cinnamon underneath, faded sienna on top. It was just a "weird" individual — not in any field guide, and all the more fun to speculate about.

We parted company with the hawk and returned to the matter of warbler finding. A Wilson's Warbler (common as dirt, out West) elicited admiring remarks from my companions, and a Blackburnian Warbler drew cheers from everyone ("you never get tired of looking at this one" was the assessment of the dentist). Across the ravine, an Ovenbird droned on. No point in searching for that one, we reckoned; they're impossible to catch a glimpse of, even without the rain. It was the former attorney who made the call on one of the best birds of the day; he saw it first, and he identified it first. In fact, he identified it correctly (as a Mourning Warbler). This from the guy who once mistook an American Robin for a Carolina Wren (I am not making this up). Retirement can do wonders for one's birding skills. I wound down the afternoon, by myself again, in the hollow at the far south end of the park. I hardly ever visited this area as a kid, so it cannot be said that I lingered out of wistful remembrance. On the contrary, I was drawn in by a newfound feeling for the drama, the majesty, the fecundity of this towering riparian forest.

A car slowed down and eased into the pull-off just beyond the rise in the road. Its occupant was of local origin, that's for sure: long-haired and lanky, with a faded jeans jacket and a "WDVE ROCKS!" t-shirt. A drab little bird was bathing in a shallow puddle in front of the car. It looked sort of pathetic: all tussled up and soaking wet, a nondescript gray-and-green job. The kid flicked a cigarette in the direction of the bird and drove off.

Several days passed, and I was back home in Reno. Back in a land of austere beauty — of lonely rimrocks, of arid pinewoods, and dry lakes. It is a place where spring migration is a slow and steady affair, with new birds arriving in ones or twos, every other day or so. Through it all, there are qualities of restraint, moderation, and manageableness that I still cannot quite bring myself to think of as becoming the month of May. I used to regard spring migration in Reno as confoundedly dull; but having just returned from Frick Park, I was now inclined to think of it as mercifully more subdued.

Spring comes late to the western Great Basin, and a feisty little snowstorm was brewing in the hills just west of town.

(How odd to think of the mountains beyond Reno as mere hills! The ridge line runs fully a mile higher than the tallest peak in Pennsylvania, and the summit clears the two-mile mark with room to spare.)

Down in the lowlands, it was nippy and partly overcast. Bright sunshine poked through the clouds here and there and illuminated the valley floor. A raw wind blew through the planted pines across the way, and a line of Canada Geese trailed in the distance. It felt — and looked, and sounded — like March in Pennsylvania.

I lowered myself to the edge of the river — fed by springtime snowmelt a few miles upstream, doomed to summertime evaporation sixty miles downstream. A gaggle of mustard-yellow goslings devoured the fresh green shoots on a high sandbar; a little flock of cliff swallows gathered up mud to build their nest gourds under the bridge; and a Bewick's wren fluttered weakly by, carrying in its beak some scrap of nest material.

Evidently, the appearance of wintry weather was insufficient to discourage the area's birds from tending to their varied domestic duties.

Beet! Beet! Beet!

A blurry-winged slate-gray avian spheroid shot past, more like an alcid than a passerine. It alit ever so briefly on a barely exposed rock, then slipped into the turbulent water and out of view. The bird resurfaced forty feet away and bobbed like a cork on the choppy surface. It was an American Dipper, of course, and its sudden appearance triggered in me that age old question: By what possible stretch of the imagination can this bird be construed to be a passerine?

The bird must have heard my question. It climbed up onto another rock, gobbled down whatever morsel it had gleaned from the river's bottom, and turned its sights on me. The dipper thereupon delivered a solo of such sonority and complexity as to put to shame the dulcet offerings of any Swainson's thrush. Certainly, no alcid ever aspired to musical accomplishment of this order.

A pair of Common Mergansers — pure muscle, and shaped like submarines — swam by, and the dipper stopped singing. It stood in place, its body be-bopping (you have to see this to know what I'm talking about), and its eyelids flashing on and off like a firefly (no matter how often you see this, you still can't bring yourself to believe it). There's nothing in the world — no passerine, no alcid, no nothing — like a dipper.

chick? chick?

A warbler. A Yellow-rumped Warbler, to be exact. The first warbler species I ever laid eyes on — nineteen springs ago. The western auduboni subspecies, though, and markedly different from any of the thousands of Yellow-rumped Warblers I had seen in Frick Park.

I was jolted back to my senses. It's May! — not a time for dippers, mergansers, and snow in the Sierra. Rather, it's May! — time for warblers. Even in Reno, a couple thousand miles away from the main action in the Ohio River Valley. I grabbed hold of a cottonwood root, pulled myself back up the riverbank, dusted myself off, and searched for warblers. There were Yellow Warblers — beady-eyed and pin-striped — all over the place (just like Pittsburgh). Wilson's Warblers (uncommon in Pittsburgh) worked the wild roses, and an Orange-crowned Warbler (rare in Pittsburgh) paused in a Russian Olive. And there were western specialties that range barely east of the Rockies: a wide-eyed MacGillivray's Warbler (green on top, yellow below, and blue up front), and a coquettish Townsend's Warbler (black and gold all over).

But center stage this afternoon was the domain of the Yellow-rumped Warbler. I counted no less than seventeen of these tail-twitching, fly-catching, fretful-seeming, bright little birdlets. There is something intensely vivid yet oddly transitory about Yellow-rumped Warblers, in a manner so emblematic of the fickle spring afternoons with which they are associated. Like short-lived sunflecks, probing the half-frozen humus of the forest floor, these lemon-and-coal-colored sprites wander about the midstory, popping into the open now and then, only to retreat back into the shadows.

Before Reno, before Mount Auburn Cemetery and Fairmount Park, even before "The Meadow" at Frick Park, there was "The Mountain".

How quaint to have called the woodlot behind our house in Pittsburgh a mountain! Its total area cannot have exceeded an acre, and its vertical relief spanned no more than eight yards. Its botanical offerings were about what you would expect of a neglected urban lot in eastern North America: Norway Maple and Japanese Knotweed; lots of Ailanthus and a lone Paulownia (names befitting the gentility of these wrongly maligned urbanites — which I refuse to call by their faux official designations, viz., Tree of Heaven and Royal Princess Tree).

This pitifully small slice of City was nonetheless a bulwark of Wilderness. It was here that I first witnessed the procession of northbound migrants across eastern North America. It was here that here that I first caught a glimpse of the Greatest Show on Earth.

I had no expectations, no frame of reference, not yet any birding mentors to prepare me for the spectacle of Spring Migration. Each new arrival, each discovery, was without precedent. April brought a winter wren under the tire swing, an Eastern (nee Rufous-sided) Towhee atop the neighbor's compost heap, and a Gray Catbird in the lilacs.

May brought warblers.

chep! chep!

Yellow-rumped Warblers — blue-gray and black with splashes of yellow all over — were the first to arrive. They were easy to identify, and so was the Black-and-white Warbler that crept about the trunk of the old locust. A male Yellow Warbler likewise presented few identification challenges: bright yellow from head to toe, with blood-red racing stripes right down the middle. Somewhat more vexing was the blue, green, and yellow job in the privet. The bird had a bold white eye-ring, which narrowed it down to just two possibilities: Nashville Warbler or Connecticut Warbler. Needless to say, it was a Nashville — but that is easy to say with the benefit of experience and perspective. At the time, there was no context for the record: the date of the sighting (early May) and details of the bird's behavior (jumpy) and build (lean) were of no use to me. It would be several years until my first Connecticut (in late May, of course): a big burly warbler, strutting purposefully about the forest floor at Frick Park, and given to occasional bursts of rich rollicking song.

For now I was left to gawk at this lovely transient, on its way from the tropics to the north woods. For now I was awestruck; study and sophistication would come later. The Nashville disappeared without a trace, in the same manner as yesterday's Yellow and last week's Black-and-white. But the fussbudget Yellow-rumps lingered, their numbers swollen to an even dozen. During the first two weeks of May, they roamed at will about this little woodlot — excuse me, "The Mountain" — and they seemed especially partial to the grove of Norway Maples at the far end of the site. It was here, in the leafy maples, that these avian worrywarts whiled their days (and I mine), hunting for insects and chasing after sunflecks, popping into the open now and then, only to retreat back into the shadows.

— by Ted Floyd

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