Warbler Neck

“A birdie with a yellow bill / hopped upon the window sill. / Cocked his shining eye and said / ‘What’s that in the road? A head?’”

I laugh at this corrupted version of an old Robert Louis Stevenson poem that was recited often on an old TV show called Axel and his Dog that emanated from the studios of Channel 4 in a faraway place called the Twin Cities—Minneapolis and St. Paul.

My wife groans. She’s heard my rendition often.

“I’m off birding,” I chirp to my lovely bride.

“You’re off in a lot of other ways, too,” is her reply. She’s a real card.

I spit on my handkerchief and wipe my binoculars. It’s family tradition. It’s the way my mother washed my face.

Thomas Carlyle advised, “Stop a moment, cease your work, and look around you.” I do him one better. I stop before I even begin any work. The Three Stooges would be proud of me.

I hope to see many warblers on this day. I remember the line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption: “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.”

I drive to a county park and walk to a location known to produce good looks at the feather jewels. Birding is a combination of three sports—hiking, voyeurism, and hoping. Boxing is the sweet science. Birding is the tweet science.

I hear whisperings of birds far removed. The songs become louder as I walk. Every male bird thinks he’s Barry White.

There is a group of folks there. A field trip in search of avian delights. This is good. The warblers deserve a parade.

I assume the warbler-watching position—feet spread comfortably, binoculars tipped towards the tops of the trees as though I am looking for clouds shaped like birds. I scan a tree filled with varicolored warblers. It’s a morning of which a birder’s dreams are made. Some look on it as an odd activity, but watching birds isn’t odd. People watch golf and fishing on TV. That’s odd. Looking at birds isn’t enough. You have to stare at them. Each one is a definite flight risk.

I listen to the ongoing color commentary.

“See the bird?”


“That’s a good bird.”

“What’s a good bird?”

It’s like the Birder’s Tourette’s syndrome. “What is it? Where is it? Where did it go?”

“There it is in that green tree. It’s at 5 o’clock. Now it’s at 9 o’clock. Now it’s about 9 minutes to 5.”

“A green tree. Is it that ash? One of the maples? Or that big oak?”

“I think so.”

“You do know what a tree looks like, don’t you?”

“Is that it singing?”

“Trees don’t sing!”

“I mean the bird.”

“There are a lot of birds singing. Which song are you talking about?”

“I thought I didn’t hear the bird over there, but actually, I’m not hearing it over here.”

“Is that the bird on that dead branch?”

“Which dead branch?”

“The one with the bird on it.”

“Oh, that’s not the bird. That’s not even a bird.”

“Is that the tree you’re talking about? The one with all of the leaves?”

“That’s the one.”

“There is more than one bird in that tree.”

“Are we looking at the same bird?”

“The bird is hard to see when you’re looking for it. This one is sort of green with white wing bars.”

“Oh, it’s a different bird. The one I’m looking at is green, but it has white wing bars.”

“Where is it?”

“Right here in my binoculars. That’s the best I can do without using a paint gun.”

“See that? I didn’t either.”

“Oh, I see it, but a bird like that does not exist.”

“The bird doesn’t change while you’re looking at it. You must have missed an episode of Wild Kingdom.”

“It’s not rocket science. It’s more difficult than that.”

“Take the training wheels off your binoculars. Trying to show you that bird is like trying to teach calculus to Gilligan.”

It’s short-attention-span birding. It’s Mad Magazine’s idea of birding. Birders are capable of having lengthy conversations that are meaningless to others.

It’s the greatest show on earth. Watching warblers is like seeing celebrities. I want to tell them that I really enjoy their work. I bird today because of what I saw yesterday and because of what I will see tomorrow.

A field-guide-thumbing, binocular-toting friend of mine joins us. We grunt a howdy in one another’s direction. He has new Swarovski binoculars, a Zeiss spotting scope, and a rusty 1981 Ford pickup with 312,679 miles on it. I can smell stale coffee and doughnuts on his breath. Seeing him causes memories of our old garage band that we almost started, The Yellow-rumped Warblers, to touch delicately a remaining brain cell or two.

My friend quotes Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes comic strip fame, “When birds burp it must taste like bugs.”

“I spy with my little eye,” I say. For a moment, I don’t care what kind of warblers they are. I’m just glad they are there. If I owned a baseball team, I’d name them the Warblers. The warblers remind me that I’ll remain a happy camper as long as I keep looking at birds with a beginner’s eyes.

My friend is working on a birding component system. It finds the bird, it identifies the bird, it takes a photo of the bird, it sends documentation to all who require it, and makes a phone call to everyone he has ever met carrying binoculars. Until he perfects it, we sort out the birds with learned identification skills.

I have a friend who is a chiropractor. Chiropractic is a noble profession involving bending and cracking that practitioners call “adjusting.” This chiropractor loves warblers. He thinks that at least one of them ought to be the state bird. Oh, he enjoys seeing them, but he doesn’t look at them that often. He’s busy bending and cracking folks. What he appreciates about warblers is the business they bring him.

There is a reason some people would rather look at elephants and whales instead of warblers. Warbler watchers look up until we contract it: Warbler neck.

The neck becomes stiff and sore. A palm of the hand pressing on the back of the neck is a badge of honor that identifies warbler watchers. Warbler neck is a small price to pay for a look at a beautiful bird.


Leave a Comment

More In This Section

Poll question: How comfortable are you with spotting scopes? »

Taken from his new book, <em>Bird Homes and Habitats</em>, <em>BWD</em> editor Bill Thompson, III, profiles 11 common North American birds and their unique nests.

Poll question: Have you spied any nests in your backyard? »

Poll question: Have You Introduced Someone to Birding This Spring? »

American goldfinch at nyjer seed feeder. Photo by T. Smith.

Poll question: How often do you clean your feeders? »

Ruby-throated hummingbird (male). Photo by Bill Thompson, III

Poll question: How many hummingbirds have you seen in your yard this year? »

A bald eagle soars through the skies over Homer, Alaska. Photo by Arnie Berger

Poll Question: Vote for the National Bird! »

Common Nighthawk (Photo: Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren / Wikimedia)

Don't Overlook These Summer Birds »

Hummingbirds don’t drink water, but their primary calorie intake is sugar in liquid form: nectar.

Poll question: Do you intentionally landscape your yard to attract birds? »

What is the thing that is the most magnetically attractive to your birds? Is it a special feeder or food? A water feature? We'd love to show some of our readers' best backyard attractants. Share yours via our website galleries.  Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Today's poll question: Do you have water features in your yard? »

Today's Poll Question: Have you attended or are you planning to attend a virtual birding festival? »

Young birder with binoculars. Photo by Bill Thompson, III.

Today's poll question: At what age did you become a birder? »

Poll question: How comfortable are you identifying fall warblers? »

Few bird watchers can resist stopping and watching when a white-breasted nuthatch appears in the backyard. Photo by G. McGarry.

Today's Poll Question: What apps do you like to use while birding? »

Poll question: Thanksgiving Tradition »

William Gorman, who lives in a wooded area near Albany, New York, rakes up acorns and saves them to feed wild turkeys. The birds are such regular visitors that he has experimented with their food preferences, also offering cracked corn, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, rice, and more.

Poll Question: What Are You Most Grateful For? »

A red-breasted nuthatch visits a backyard suet feeder. Photo by Shutterstock.

Poll Question: Unexpected Backyard Visitors? »

Bald eagle (adult). Photo by Wikimedia.

Poll Question: Have you seen a bald eagle in the wild? »

Poll Question: How many woodpecker species have you seen in your yard? »

Woodpeckers: The Vertical Birds »

From left to right: Nyjer seed, peanuts, millet, and cracked corn.

Poll question: What do you feed the birds in your yard? »

Snow buntings visit a backyard feeding station. Photo by Edward Bryenton.

Poll question: How Do You Help Birds in Bad Weather? »

American woodcock, photo by Wikimedia Commons

Poll question: Have you ever seen or heard an American woodcock? »

Poll question: When do you put up your hummingbird feeder? »

Wilson's warbler. Photo by Robin L. Edwards.

Poll question: Spring Migration Early This Year? »

BWD contributor Julie Zickefoose discovers a fast and easy recipe for feeding hummingbirds! Photo by Bill Thompson, III.

Poll question: Do you have hummingbird feeders? »

Optics expert Ben Lizdas considers the costs and benefits of Porro vs. roof-prism binoculars, various objective lens sizes and magnification, and more, to help readers decide which is the best binocular for their needs and comfort. Photo by Bill Thompson, III.

Poll Question: Have you ever participated in a Christmas Bird Count before? »

Birder with binoculars. Photo by Bill Thompson, III.

Poll Question: How Many Binoculars Do You Own? »

A Canada jay pauses to rest in the fir trees of Mount Ranier State Park, Washington. Photo by Walter Siegmund / Wikimedia.

North America’s 10 Most Interesting Birds »

Poll Question: Do You Belong to a Local Bird Club? »

Finding Birds in Winter »

Poll Question: Do you listen to podcasts about birding and conservation? »

Squirrels are a common pest at bird feeders. In our tips below, we suggest ways to deal with the furry menace. Photo by Sandra Myers.

Poll Question: Do You Intentionally Feed Squirrels? »

A Robin Needs Three Snows on Its Tail Before It’s Truly Spring »

BWD field editor, naturalist, and author Julie Zickefoose hangs a new hummingbird feeder in her yard.

Poll Question: How Many Bird Feeders Do You Have in Your Yard? »

Poll Question: Which of these bird call mnemonics is your favorite? »

American goldfinch at nyjer seed feeder. Photo by T. Smith.

Poll Question: How would you describe your bird identification skills? »

Contributors Brian L. Sullivan, Marshall J. Iliff, and Christopher L. Wood provide an overview of eBird, launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

Poll question: Do You Participate in eBird? »

The bald eagle's adult plumage, which everyone recognizes, is attained in the fourth year of the bird's life and replaced by identical feathers from then on.

How to Identify Bald Eagles, Young and Old »

Blue Jay: Backyard Enigma »

Carbonated Warbler, a mystery bird painted and described by John James Audubon in the early 1800s.

Carbonated Warbler »

Chewink, now called Eastern Towhee. Illustration by John James Audubon.

Chewink »

Canada Jays, now called Gray Jays. Illustration by John Gerrard Keulemans.

Canada Jay »

Cherry-Birds, now called Cedar Waxwings. Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

Cherry-Bird »

Louisiana Heron, now called the Tricolored Heron. Illustration by John James Audubon.

Louisiana Heron »

White-headed Eagle, now called the Bald Eagle. Illustration by John James Audubon.

White-headed Eagle »

Frog Hawk, now called the Northern Harrier. Illustration by John James Audubon.

Frog Hawk »

Black and White Creeper, now called the Black-and-white Warbler. Illustration by John James Audubon.

Black and White Creeper »

Poll Question: Will you travel outside the continental US in 2020 to experience birds and nature? »

Subscribe & Save!

ONE YEAR (6 ISSUES) of Bird Watcher's Digest magazine
GET FREE AND INSTANT ACCESS to our digital edition
SAVE 33% off newsstand prices
PAY ONE LOW PRICE of $19.99!
Scroll Up