How to Know the Birds: No. 82, The Greatest Show on Earth

by Ted Floyd

  • What: Lucy’s Warbler, Leiothlypis luciae; Golden-winged Warbler; Vermivora chrysoptera; and Swainson’s Warbler; Limnothlypis swainsonii
  • When: Friday, April 26, 2024; Wednesday, May 1, 2024; and Saturday, May 4, 2024
  • Where: Tonaquint Park, St. George, Washington County, Utah; Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois; and Wall Doxey State Park, Marshall County, Mississippi

I’ll come right out with it: The single greatest thing about birding in the ABA Area is the spring migration of warblers.

Now wait a minute.

What about the stupendous seabird flights in the Bering Sea region of Alaska? The soul-stirring spectacle of Sandhill Cranes staging on the Platte River in Nebraska? The thrill of winter finch irruptions at places like Sax-Zim Bog, Whitefish Point, and Algonquin Provincial Park?

Those phenomena are all incredible, but hear me out. The thing about the spring warbler flight is its ridiculous accessibility. Easily 200 million people in the ABA Area have immediate access to the spring migration of warblers. As an early teen in a midsize city in Pennsylvania, I saw and heard warblers on the way to school each day in May; same deal in college in New Jersey, with warblers all over campus all month long; and so it was for me for the first few jobs I held out of grad school, in Massachusetts and New York.

Fast forward to the present. I was on the road for a fair bit of spring migration in 2024, and if there was a unifying theme in my travels, it was warblers.

Case in point: Tonaquint Park, in the heart of St. George, Utah, back on Apr. 26, the day of the iNat City Nature Challenge. St. George is at the extreme northeastern tip of the Mojave Desert, home to Joshua tree forests and insane cliffs and canyons and even California condors. But that’s not why our little group had come to Tonaquint. Rather, we had come to see the plainest and tiniest warbler in the ABA Area, Oreothlypis luciae, the Lucy’s warbler. But it’s a great bird, energetic and industrious and equipped with a song that seems way too loud for so diminutive a creature. That Friday morning was uncharacteristically gray and dreary, with sprinkles and eventually a windswept rain. But we were not to be denied:

On a cloudy morning in the Utah desert, the riparian woods along the Virgin River in downtown St. George come alive with singing Lucy’s warblers. Photos by © Ted Floyd.

Our tally that morning was 11 Lucy’s warblers, most of them singing their bright and chirpy songs in the dense and dark foliage. A day with just one Lucy’s warbler is a good day. A day with a tally in the double digits is an epic day.

Less than a week later, I was at another city park: the Bill Jarvis Bird Sanctuary in Chicago. It was a breezy morning (duh; Chicago…spring…) that first day of May but also sunny and mild, and the birding was great. There were warblers aplenty, including, at the very end, a quite special one for us: the ABA 2024 Bird of the Year, Vermivora chrysoptera, the golden-winged warbler. And not just any old golden-wing, but practically the most perfect individual I’d ever laid eyes on: a textbook-perfect full-on adult male without so much as a hint of intergradation. Every contour feather of its breast was smooth gray, indicating phenotypic purity.

Unlike the loudmouth Lucy’s of Tonaquint, the Jarvis golden-wing was, as far as any of us could tell, entirely silent. It was content to get looked at. That was good enough for the warbler, and it was good enough—it was more than good enough—for all the rest of us:

Staff and friends of the American Birding Association (ABA) admire a golden-winged warbler, the ABA 2024 Bird of the Year, at Chicago’s well-birded Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Photos by © Ted Floyd.

From the Mojave Desert to the shore of Lake Michigan to—why not?—a cypress swamp in Mississippi. Because there are warblers there, too, in spring. Are there ever! Especially in the first week of May, by which time all the breeders are back in—but also at which time many of the boreal breeders are still migrating through. And one in particular that I really wanted to see and hear—one I’d gone well over a dozen years without laying eyes or ears on. This one, the Swainson’s warbler, Limnothlypis swainsonii:

Swainson’s warblers are hard to catch a glimpse of in the thick swamp forests of the Deep South, but it’s impossible not to hear their ringing songs. Photos by © Ted Floyd.

Indeed a whole forest full of them. Most were back in the thick understory vegetation, impossible for us to see in the dimly lit dankness, but also just as impossible to overlook for their clarion proclamations. There is something special, something sweet, about the suite of Southern warblers, and the Swainson’s is the sweetest and most Southern of them all.

Warblers everywhere and—Did you catch it? Something else? Warbler-watchers everywhere. At Tonaquint, we were the Red Cliffs Bird Fest; at Jarvis, we were the American Birding Association; at Wall Doxey, we were the Mississippi Ornithological Society. There was, I am nearly certain, zero overlap among the participants in our three gatherings—and, yet, our constituencies were perfectly unified in our quest for warblers. If there is a harmonic convergence in the course of human events, it is the gathering of birders for spring migration.

Way back in my early teen years, well before birding had gone mainstream, warbler-watching was already a decidedly communitarian affair. You could go weeks, maybe a month or more, in the winter and early spring without seeing another birder. But the spring warbler migration brought us out, and brought us together, as nothing else could do.

I think that’s the grandest thing of all about spring migration. Not the birds themselves. But rather all of us, in the desert in Utah or on the lakeshore in Chicago or in the bayou in Mississippi, gathered together to watch warblers. We did it in the 1980s, we’re doing it in the 2020s, and I hope we’re still doing it in the 2080s, exalting together in the Greatest Show on Earth.


Q: What do the Red Cliffs Bird Fest, the American Birding Association, and the Mississippi Ornithological Society have in common? A: Their constituencies delight in watching warblers in spring. The ABA even sponsored a warbler-themed beer! MOS members drank gallons of sweet tea in connection with warbler-watching. And Red Cliffs ran away with best-in-show for hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants. As to the quality of the spring migration, though, it was a three-way tie. And all across the the U.S. and Canada, it was an infinity-way tie, as warbler-watchers everywhere ditched work, school, and every other manner of responsibility for the Greatest Show on Earth.

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Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.