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Spying the Warbler, Prize Bird of the Spring Migration

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The black‑and‑white warbler stops by southern Ontario briefly each May – and leaves scores of sore necks in its wake.

The first time I see a black‑and‑white warbler, a diminutive bird that looks like it’s been zipped into a zebra outfit, I scream with joy. And, to be honest, vindication. I’m surrounded by excitable birders who live for this moment of spring migration in Ontario’s Long Point Provincial Park, when trees sparkle with resplendent songbirds headed toward their northern breeding grounds. They shout names as the birds appear – Blackburnian! Parula! Magnolia! – and the only things I manage to spot with certainty are leaves.

April 27, 2021
A black and white warbler on a tree branch
Warbler.   Photo: Tom Murray

Nobody warns me about warblers’ supercharged energy, as they flutter frenetically, fly‑catching on the go. After all, their goal isn’t to strike a pose for me, but to refuel. The birds whizz past, thwarting my attempts to catch a glimpse of them through my binoculars, which I can neither focus nor raise quickly enough. Didn’t they realize that I’d been standing in mid‑May mud, craning my neck upward, for over an hour?

The price for staring straight up into treetops is a condition known as “warbler neck,” both agonizing and a badge of honour flaunted from mid‑April until late May. When I see a Baltimore oriole – essentially a blackbird dipped in Orange Crush – that same day, I gasp. And when I give myself over completely to the radiating pain in my neck, I lock eyes with a hooded warbler, a tiny miracle of a bird, clad in a balaclava, devouring insects with glee.

A Baltimore oriole perched on a tree branch
Baltimore oriole.   Photo: Oliver Timm
A flock of Killdeer in flight against blue skies
Baltimore oriole.   Photo: Oliver Timm
Killdeer.    Photo: Shawn Taylor

What I soon realized about birding is that the more you look, the more you see. And the behaviours are astonishing. Seeing an American woodcock – a pouty, chubby, forgettable brownish bird – put on a mating display that includes an acrobatic aerial dance makes me believe in magic again. After witnessing a killdeer’s ingenious, feigned‑broken‑wing display to distract predators from attacking nests, I start saying “birdbrain” with utmost reverence.

For the birder, the spring migration is a multi‑sensory experience that includes moments of intense joy, devastating frustration and inevitable envy (your best birding friends will always point out that they’ve just seen your nemesis bird). For the birds themselves, migratory journeys involve tremendous peril, resilience and intense determination.

The vivaciousness of birds reminds us that they’re very much alive, in spite of it all. And by observing them, so are we.