May: Blackburnian Warbler
In the bird watching community, one of the most exciting “lifers” – a bird that someone has successfully sighted and identified for the first time in their life – comes in the form of a flashing gem amidst the treetops. Fiery and bright, lilting in song and fiercely protective over territory, this bird is the perfect species to look out for as Philadelphia’s trees finally get blooming.
It is the beautiful month of May and continuing with the exploration of the myriad of warblers that visit this part of the country, this month’s bird is the Blackburnian Warbler (Setophaga fusca). Similar to the Palm Warbler in the migratory sense, this warbler travels far and wide throughout the year based on the season. South America is the winter home of the Blackburnian warbler, where they frolic amidst shade-coffee plantations in the peaks of the Andes. Yes, Philadelphia is far from the sloping mountainsides of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, but have no fear. The wooded spaces around Philadelphia are one of the last stops this winged traveler makes before it heads farther north to breed.
This bird is a marvel to spot. The males in particular, especially when they are in breeding season, are a special sight to behold. There is a unique intricacy to their coloring, consisting of black and white plumage on their backs and contrasting yellow and flaming orange on their belly and head. A suspected Blackburnian warbler sighting is a bit easier to confirm since they are the only North American warbler to adorn that bright orange throat.
On top of their looks, springtime means males will be extra confrontational, as you may see rival individuals performing aerial acrobatics in a contended territory. Similar to a show one might see performed by the Blue Angels, these birds dodge limbs, whirl around trunks, and plummet at times downward through foliage, all the while chasing other in circles over a given area of forest. Once an area is claimed, those antics die down.
Like other warblers, Blackburnian warblers are incredibly strong. Their level of endurance surpasses many other species, especially when it comes to making long trips between North and South America. It is no surprise then that some of these birds, “vagrants” as they are called, have been found veered off course in Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and even the Azores off the coast of western Africa. But despite their flight endurance, the Blackburnian warbler, along with other birds like it, have been dying at astonishingly high rates as they pass through urban regions.
Philadelphia, along with other cities boasting skyscrapers, has proven to be a hazardous flight path. Mass collision events have been on the rise, and 2020 proved to be a brutal year for these birds, with some mornings revealing over a thousand bird deaths that had occurred overnight. City lights can disorient a bird, resulting individuals hitting buildings or trying to fly through glass. Now, many species that fly through these areas are at increased risk of extinction.
Philadelphia bird lovers have already begun working on ways to reduce the number of collision related deaths by starting a project called Bird Safe Philly. The project has coalesced around its program Lights Out Philly, which helps property managers eliminate excess nocturnal light both inside and outside of their buildings to allow for a safer flight for bird migrations. Bird Safe Philly and its Lights Out Philly program has received much support from local developers, designers and builders, and is a welcomed addition to the movement that has graced other cities like New York City, Chicago and Boston.
Trying to attract one of these flashy birds? You may be in luck if you live near plenty of trees. During migration, these birds will eat their fill of insects hanging out high up in the trees. But offer them a few meal worms or a place to cool off like a bird bath or water dripper and you may lure one closer to the ground. Listen as well for the male’s buzzy song complete with a high note at the end. You may be close!
For more information about the Blackburnian Warbler, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for advice on what types of feeders may attract this warbler or other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips, resources, and photographs.