Friday, May 08, 2009

The Swainson's Warbler Trip!

It's always a bit dodgy when you're asked to lead a birding festival field trip that is dedicated to finding one particular bird species. This is exacerbated by the following additional factors:

1. It's a rare bird, known for skulking in rhododendron thickets.
2. Lots of people sign up (and pay money for the privilege).
3. It's pouring rain.
4. It's the last day of the festival and everyone is COUNTING on seeing this bird.

And so it was last Saturday morning when my friend (and festival founder/raconteur) Geoff Heeter and I loaded 12 or so brave and eager souls onto a Ford Econoline van somewhere near the New River Gorge in West Virginia. This was the Swainson's Warbler Trip and it had but one target bird.

As we drove across WV 19 onto a country road that would take us to a spot that had at times hosted a Swainson's warbler, I was already drafting my apology for the trip participants in case we totally dipped out. The rain pounded on the van roof, pouring down like silver over the windshield, visibility nil.

"Well everyone, we tried our best. Some days you get the bird. Some days the bird gets you. Some days you feel like you've been flipped the bird. Sorry we missed it, but that's a great reason to come back next year!"

or this:

"Those Swainson's warblers are harder to find than a working microphone at a Milli Vanilli concert!"

or this:

"If I had a nickel for every time I've missed this bird, we'd be birding from a stretch limo instead of this rattletrap and eating caviar for lunch instead of flat meat."

Little did I know, I was wasting my time thinking up disappointment-softening excuses.

At our first stop Geoff and I heard two distant Swainson's singing along the creek in separate directions. Neither one was close enough to see or to lure in with a taped call. I decided to walk the group down to a nearby bridge while Geoff and Ned Keller got the vehicles.

From the bridge, one singing male sounded lots closer. Then he moved even closer, but was still out of sight in the thick rhodies, 30 yards upstream. I filled Geoff in about this new development and we motioned to the group to stay put while we carefully moved up the road for a better vantage point. Barely 150 feet farther along, I spotted the bird, teed up and singing against the trunk of a giant hemlock. Within seconds I had him in the spotting scope. Geoff beckoned our group forward and we all took turns drinking in this very rare sight. And the male Swainson's warbler sang and sang and preened and sang....

It felt SO great to show more than a dozen birders this cool and hard-to-find bird. It felt even better to locate a bird that was relaxed and singing from a favorite perch on its territory. No audio luring necessary! No trying to get bird watchers onto a het-up, moving bird. Just us, this beautiful male Swainson's warbler, some nice optics, and the rain, still falling down, but completely unnoticed.
Doing the Swainson's Warbler Life Bird Wiggle.

After we all got great looks I realized, in one of those I-could-kick-myself moments that I had ABSOLUTELY NO CAMERA WITH ME to take this bird's photo. No digiscoping rig. No 30D with a 300mm lens. Nope that stuff was warm and dry in the van. Hearing my remorseful cries, Geoff handed me his camera phone. I held it up to my Swarovski spotting scope and here's what I got!

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At 6:54 PM, Blogger KatDoc said...

OK, Okay. All week, the Flock has been saying "F--- the Swainson's Warbler," but I have to admit, that's a pretty sweet bird.

You know, Bill, speaking of fields trips "dedicated to one particular bird species," you still owe me a Golden-winged Warbler. When are you gonna pay up?

~Kathi, winking at BT3

At 7:24 PM, Blogger Wren said...

Really, Bill, I think you're making it up about hard it is to find this bird. Ten minutes into the trip we're lighting up twitter and facebook with the news, and off to look for other birds.

Unlike Katdoc, some of the flock were saying nice things about the Swainson's, like "Oh, I'm so sorry you didn't get to see the golden-winged warbler. Did I mention Bill found the Swainson's Warbler in like 5 minutes?"


At 7:31 PM, Blogger denapple said...

Bill, how did you edit the leaves and branches in front of the bird from your movie? Every other bird I saw was concealed by at least some twigs... Great movie. I'm envious!

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

This is the finest example of video phonescoping I've ever seen. The warbler is decent too!

At 10:30 PM, Blogger Mary said...

I'd better not say anything except Congratulations!

At 1:12 AM, Blogger T.R. said...

It was a fantastic moment Bill - thank you. That impromptu video is mind blowing!!! Thanks for an unforgettable, if not history-making, week. Folks - there is no better birding than with Bill of the Birds!!! (Especially when a little Wren is thrown in!)

At 2:07 AM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

This is beautifully written, wry and pure BOTB. I didn't know that video was taken with a cameraphone!! What will they think of next??

Always carry your camera, dear.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Geoff said...

I have never seen a happier wetter bunch of folks. The rain did not dampen the mood of the festival at all. It is always a joy to bird with you especially when you are under pressure and you get that nervous tick that everyone thinks is crazy funny but embarrassing.
PS: While using only a couple of gallons of gas in the van making it a supper low per person carbon foot print for the day we say 81 other species on top of the Swainson’s.

At 10:16 PM, Blogger Peg said...

Inventive & creative use of a cell phone. Great improv !

And a nice bird song to boot.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Kathi said...

Two years ago, Julie led my Swainson's trip. In the van, we got the lecture: "Get out quietly. No laughing and talking. Don't look at any other birds til we find this warbler. It is a real skulker and very hard to find, so be patient."

We got out, they played the iPod once, and we had two birds teed up, on opposite sides of the road, doing the Swainson's Warbler version of "Dueling Banjos." Less than five minutes into the trip, we were "done."

I think it is all a lot of hype about the SWWA being "hard to find." I think they just tell you that, so that you go away feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. Then, they withhold something easy like a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (this year's miss) to entice you to come back.

~Kathi, whose VW is "balls" Seriously.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger nina at Nature Remains. said...

and these success stories just make it all the clearer to me--in all my wanderings and watching alone, there's no substitute for getting out with a knowledgeable guide who can put you on a bird.

At 4:38 PM, Anonymous zeladoniac said...

That's a totally sweet look at a great little bird. I love the head-on shots.

So far my favorite use of a cell phone in a wild place!

At 10:11 PM, Blogger Janet Creamer said...

Very, very, very cool, Bill! Great capture, good sound, bird just singing away! Great story leading up to it, as well.

At 3:16 AM, Blogger Kathiesbirds said...

So that's the elusive Swainson's Warbler which I only heard but never saw! Guess I'll have to take that trip next time! What a cutie it is!

At 10:26 AM, Blogger littleorangeguy said...

BOTB, that is just pure magic. Thanks for setting my Monday off on exactly the right note(s).

At 12:57 PM, Blogger OpposableChums said...

Years ago, when I was shooting a birding documentary, I had to make a pact with myself: "NO birding while shooting." It had to be one or the other, else I was dividing my efforts too much.

The rare sighting of a Swainson's Warbler in Southern New Jersey certainly put my resolve to the test. I conveniently found that, for trumped-up reasons of "better lighting," I had to keep revisiting the back country road where the Warbler was being seen, and which I was HEARING loud and clear when I was, uh, "shooting.".

Finally, on my fourth visit, the bird took pity on my childish prevarications, and rose briefy from its admirable concealment into a shaft of strong sunlight. Got it!

Oddly, after that, I somehow didn't need to get any more shots down that particular road...


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