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What Happens When North America’s Rarest Warbler Shows Up At A Bird Festival

There really aren’t many more life birds I can get in the Eastern US. Sure, there are some birds I saw when I was a kid that I’d like to see again, but for the most part, I can count on one hand the species I need to get from this part of the US. One of those is the Kirtland’s warbler, which is a possibility at the Biggest Week In North American Birding, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

Wednesday morning, still in a sleepy haze, desperately hoping the caffeine from my coffee would finally jump start my metabolism, I made my way to the quieter east end of the Magee Marsh boardwalk. I noticed a small cluster of people up ahead, one of them turned around and I recognized Mike Watson from BIRDQUEST and he asked, “Hey, Shaz, didn’t you need a Kirtland’s warbler? It’s right here.”

To which I replied something to the effect of, “Get the frak out of town!”

I dashed over and after some jockeying for position, Mike got me on it.  He wisely said, “Here, hand me your scope, just get you bins on it.”

With a rare bird like this that is endangered and a lifer, I wanted to get a great look at it before I attempted digiscoping.

The above photo of the Kirtland’s warbler is by Mike Watson and that’s the bird he showed me and pretty much what I saw in my Swarovski ELs.  There it is, folks, North America’s rares warbler. There were only about 15 of us on it and immediately the stories were buzzing. The bird was found by a couple visiting the marsh for the first time and one of them said, “Huh, is this a magnolia warbler?”

Bobby Harrison happened to be there, took a look and said something to the effect of, “Holy crap, no, that’s a Kirtland’s.”

This is one of the few festivals where Twitter is being used as much as walkie talkies to spread the word about birds seen on the board walk. People can either follow the @BiggestWeek feed or the hash tag #BiggestWeek for bird updates. Within minutes of tweeting, birders were sprinting towards us.  Alas, the Kirtland’s flew across the canal and Mike and I tried to follow it but couldn’t keep our bins on it.  I started getting the sinking feeling of, “Danger, Will Robinson,” as the crowds formed on either side of me on the boardwalk.  I’m claustrophobic in crowds and I need to see an exit strategy to feel safe…I was not getting it. Sarding birding was happening and that’s not my style.

Like a salmon going up stream to spawn, I darted and dodged my way to a boardwalk intersection and climbed up on the wooden railing, watching the hoard assemble.  This isn’t even half the crowd, this is just what was visible from my vantage point. The crowd anxiously awaited another glimpse of this target bird and then over the walkie talkie came the report that the warbler was heard out in the field.

And as quickly as the birders assembled, they herded towards the new report. Birders were fast walking/running to get to the field.

As people were texted, tweeted, emailed, facebooked and called, more cars arrived to get on the bird.

The group spread out, desperate to hear the song of the Kirtland’s. Would it be found again? I was happy I got to see it, but it’s not that much fun to be the person to say, “Oh, yeah, Kirtland’s, I got that like 15 minutes ago,” while 400 people kink their necks for a glimpse.

I decided to go back to the boardwalk and digiscope other birds. I just lining up on a really sweet mourning warbler when my buddy Clay called and said, “Get your butt back out here, you can totally digiscope this thing, we’re on it!”

And I went back to the field (I have to say, this is one of the few bird festivals where I’ve lost weight from darting back and forth so much on the boardwalk).

The hoard of birders marks the spot! I had to giggle when I came out and watched the crowd, it really was like a swarm of bees, especially the way the crowd moved and clustered together once they were back on the Kirtland’s warbler.  I immediately found my buddy Clay and started scanning the trees.  In the center of the crowd was the American Birding Association president Jeff Gordon, using his booming voice to call out instructions to find the bird. Around him you could hear excited squeals of, “I got him!” or still desperate, “Where is he, where is heeeeee?” It seemed so appropriate to have our country’s club president leading the way on this rare bird.

Clay and I tried to train our scopes on the Kirtland’s and had people line up behind us and we’d dodge to the side while they would jump in for a glimpse.  As other people shared their scopes, I took the opportunity to digiscope the warbler. And as great as I am getting at using my iPhone for digiscoping birds, I didn’t want to play around and went straight to my SLR to get photos.  That my best and fastest technique and the bird was high and far, I wanted all the power I could get my fingers on to get a souvenir shot of this awesome life bird.

Not bad considering how far away the bird was.  I can’t believe I freaking digiscoped a Kirtland’s warbler surrounded by 500 people.

The rest of the day was spent regaling each other with how we finally got on the bird. Word soon spread that while we were out in the field, another Kirtland’s was heard.  Jeff Gordon and others speculated that there may have been more than one.

Mike and I ran into each other and we compared photos of our birds, since he got a photo of the one close and low on the boardwalk and I got my photo with the one high out on the trees.  Here’s a comparison:

My photo is on the left and Mike’s photo is on the right.  The streaking appears to be slightly different, especially on the lower streak. Kinda looks like there was more than one male Kirtland’s at the festival.

Again, I’m not one for huge crowds, but it was a blast being in the center of that melee and feeling the energy and excitement. It was a full on twitch as British birders would call it.

And I would like everyone to take notice that I avoided using the eye roll inducing phrase, “Birders flocked to the Kirtland’s warbler.” News media, please take note. That sort of headline is dead and used to death.

12 comments to What Happens When North America’s Rarest Warbler Shows Up At A Bird Festival

  • How really awesome! I remember being super excited when I went birding with you and the Fiends, and got to see a bluebird. I never see Eastern Bluebirds, not even here in RI. I do so love that birding place. So green. So alive.

  • Very Cool! I’m always amazed when read stories of rarities sticking around in the face of a sudden onslaught of birders. If 500 people showed up and started looking at me, I’d run!

  • Congrats on the the lifer. That certainly was an intense crowd.

  • Ron from Chicago

    I’m so glad you got the Kirtland’s – good for you!
    My wife and I bumped into you on the boardwalk last weekend and you were so helpful in showing both of us the GHO owlet. Thanks so much – you’re a great bird ambassador! It was great meeting you.
    Ron

  • Thanks, Ron, it was great to meet you guys and glad you got to glimpse the owlets!

  • anonymous

    “And I would like everyone to take notice that I avoided using the eye roll inducing phrase, ‘Birders flocked to the Kirtland’s warbler.’”

    But you went there anyways.

  • Sharon, yours is one of the best posts I’ve seen yet about the Kirtland’s sighting(s) at the BW. The crowd pictures really give a good feel for what it was like. So jealous….

  • Living where we do in Michigan, with some family property right in the middle of Jack Pine Kingdom, I take Kirtland’s for granted. Seeing everyone’s reaction to this one reminds me how lucky we are!

    BTW, it was great meeting you at Magee. You’re much taller in person! I may stop by sometime for the Clay-colored Sparrow you promised (not really) me.

  • Anne

    Congratulations! I really got a kick out of the story and photos, especially the people running and the cars arriving. Very cool.

  • Well that is great! As a kid in Michigan I can remember even in the late 1950′s that the difficult status of the Kirtland Warbler was understood and steps were being taken to preserve and expand the jackpine stands in the central part of the state. It’s a good news story for sure.

  • That’s an awesome story! Sounds like a sighting that would go to the top of anyone’s list. I’m glad you got to see it and got a great photo too.

  • Congrats on getting an awesome lifer! Certainly some sardine birding going on there. I would have also swam like a spawning salmon.