No. 23: Birds and Spring Migration Icons

by Frank Izaguirre

Species: Blackburnian Warbler, Setophaga fusca

Question: What bird do you most look forward to during spring migration?

Throughout much of the ABA Area, spring migration is reaching its peak, and, for many birders, the most exciting time of the year is now upon us. Some will travel far to be at the best migration traps in North America, and some will savor the fact that even just the tiniest bit of greenspace in our yards or neighborhoods might have a truly stunning migrant in its brightest plumage and singing its heartiest song.

So it was for me just yesterday. I took my one-year-old daughter to a playground near our house, and, while helping her climb up some playground steps, I heard a familiar series of squeaks: tsee tsee tsee tsee tsee tsuka tsuka tseeeee! Wait…that sounded like a Blackburnian! I thought to myself, while squinting into the trees. I picked up my daughter and looked to the canopy, and, even without my binoculars, I could clearly see that bright orange face shining down through the branches.

The Blackburnian Warbler is not a particularly unique personal choice for most anticipated spring warbler: I’ve heard several birders remark that even among all the gorgeous warblers and other Neotropical migrants, a glimpse of a Blackburnian Warbler is among their most cherished spring sightings. I’ve even heard birders literally shout “Hallelujah!” upon their first Blackburnian sighting of the spring. The Blackburnian Warbler was also Phoebe Snetsinger’s spark bird, launching her decades-long global big listing quest, which made her the first person to see over 8,000 species. It’s not an under-the-radar beauty.

Is there anything quite like the feeling when you spot your first Blackburnian Warbler of spring?

Blackburnian Warblers winter in the Andes as far south as Bolivia and breed in coniferous forests and forests with both conifers and deciduous trees in higher elevations of the Appalachians and farther north in the midwestern and eastern US and Canada. I’ve been lucky enough to glimpse Blackburnian Warblers in six states and three countries—the US, Canada, and Costa Rica—sometimes while they undertake their long journeys and sometimes when they are on territory. I have seen them earlier on in their migratory journeys, like in Costa Rica, and also in fall when they are quieter and have more subdued plumage, as I have in Florida. It would be a delight to someday find one on its wintering grounds.

Yet in some sense, it seems like the quintessential Blackburnian experience is not to find them on breeding territory, sojourning in their winter range, or even early on in migration: the classic Blackburnian experience is to find one in the two-week peak of spring migration, perhaps on the East Coast or along the Great Lakes, singing their squeaky song and dazzling birders with their compact but outrageously colorful faces, beaming down from not-yet-fully-leafed-out branches.

When light shining through the branches of a not-fully-leafed-out tree lights up a Blackburnian Warbler… there really is nothing quite like that.

When I saw that Blackburnian yesterday, it clicked: the spring migration apex, that brief and cherished window when a critical mass of gorgeous and vociferous birds pass through my neighborhood, is really, truly here. I knew that already on a rational level, since I knew it was May and this is when it happens, but with the Blackburnian Warbler sighting, I felt it.

The Blackburnian Warbler, an iconic beauty for this time of year, is one of the birds I most look forward to during the peak of spring migration. What bird do you most look forward to finding during the peak of spring migration?