It’s still hot, sticky and humid here in Toronto, but according to the warblers, it’s fall already and time to begin journeying southward! Even when fall is the furthest thing from my mind –meteorologically speaking — the birds already feel it in their bones. They know when it’s time to go. Their perception of time is dictated largely by food and light and breeding. In a sense it’s life stripped down the the barest of essentials, but there’s also an enviable single-mindedness of purpose.
This is my fifth fall season at the banding station and I still make embarrassing mistakes. This morning, for instance, I extracted two warblers from the nets and could not (for the life of me) ID them. I saw greenish grey on the back, an eyestripe, whitish underneath (and a manifest lack of tail on one of the birds), but all of this told me nothing. I went through my mental list of warblers and the markings didn’t correspond to any birds I knew. And since I had gotten a few challenging ID’s right just minutes before, people started to suspect that I might indeed the bearer of great news — a rarity! a tick! a banding station first! And then my friend Taylor took one look at the bird and said, “Tennessee.” Of course it was a Tennessee. I’m so notoriously awful at identifying this drab-ish warbler in the field that I forgot it existed entirely!
How could I have forgotten the Tennessee? Maybe because to me it’s the plain Jane of warblers; the only thing I really love about the bird is it’s needle-sharp pointy bill, but in this case I didn’t even notice it.
Identifying birds is funny sometimes. Often, it’s a question of focusing on things I recognize, rather than zeroing in on markings that confuse me. Had I stopped to look at the bill, I would have immediately seen the tennessee-ness of this warbler. But instead, I focused on the greenishness of the bird’s back and started feverishly running through all the warblers I wasn’t sure about — could it be a pine? an orange-crowned? a deeply confused chestnut-sided? My guesses, which I kept to myself, started getting more and more delirious.
I had just accomplished that same feat with the saddest looking (female) Cape May Warbler, which had none of the colorful markings of its male counterpart in breeding plumage. This one sported a brown exterior punctuated but a buttery chest with the faintest of stripes; the diagnostic facial markings were barely visible, but I immediately ID’d it correctly because I saw a diagnostic yellow patch on its rump — not as bright as the appropriately named Yellow-rumped Warbler, but bright enough — and that detail told me all I needed to know. If nothing else, birding is giving me the confidence to trust in what I do know. It’s often much more than I had anticipated.