I came into bird-watching in a casual sort of way, occasioned by the initial interest of my wife, who, as a kindergarten teacher, decided to add a unit on birds to her lesson plans. With her leading the way, we bought a pair of binoculars, a rudimentary bird guide, and then a more advanced one. There was nothing hardcore about this activity at first. The book and field glasses would be tossed into the backseat of the car whenever we took drives out into the country, which we did often in the spring and fall.

All of that changed quickly with a bright flash of wings one morning in May. We were driving north along the Scioto River with no particular destination in mind, when we came upon a clearing that offered a panoramic view of the waterway. I pulled the car off the road there so we could sit awhile and watch the river lazily gliding by, the reflections of the distant wooded shore glimmering on the surface. Suddenly, out of the blue, a bright object, glowing like a lump of hot coal, shot across our line of sight and disappeared into a clump of willows. It was a small bird, we realized, though from a distance one might easily mistake it for a very large, colorful insect.

Grabbing the binoculars from the back seat, we shuffled down the grassy slope of the riverbank for a closer look. And there out of quivering foliage, a luminous little creature materialized on a branch before us. It was breathtakingly beautiful – flaming orange, and sulfur yellow on its throat and breast with bold accents of white and black on its wings. Its eyes sparkled with an elfin, magical charm. Unalarmed by our presence and paying scant attention to us, the bird then proceeded to scour the leaves and branches for prey, deftly seizing juicy little insect morsels and devouring them. It moved about quickly, almost in a pixilated fashion, and with every change in position presented us with some new pleasing rearrangement of its spectacular plumage.

And then as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone – flying off unceremoniously with a loud chirp and disappearing out of sight.

We looked at each other in stunned silence and walked back to the car, feeling like we had just beheld the burning bush in the wilderness. The burning question, of course, was "What kind of bird was that?"

I had a good idea of where to look, as I reached for the bird guide and flipped immediately to the section titled "Wood Warblers." I was intrigued by these birds, namely because there were so many of them and I had yet to see one. I was beginning to wonder whether they really existed. And there it was on the top of page 267:


I read aloud the text on the adjacent page. "A treetop warbler common in spruce-fir forests."

"Common?" I protested to my wife. "How could anything like that be common?" I demanded almost indignantly, feeling that the quasi-religious experience we had just had was somehow being slighted.

That was more than 30 years ago, and I can now say, after decades of bird watching, that Blackburnian warblers are indeed common. Relative to all other Neotropical songbirds that migrate through my home state of Ohio, relative to knowing when and where to look for them, and relative to the small window of opportunity that opens up briefly – but gloriously – in May, anyone can behold a Blackburnian warbler: one of the most splendid gems in the crown of North America's avifauna. I have encountered them every year since-on the campus where I was attending college, in the woodlands of local parks, and eventually in the white oak tree of my own backyard.

But those precious few moments on the banks of the Scioto River were transformative. They ignited the spark of ornithological passion in me. I had just touched the hem of the garment of something quite wonderful and wanted to grab hold of a whole lot more.

Kyle said...

What a delightful read. Thanks for sharing the spark!!

Anonymous said...

I saw my first blackburnian during a fallout of warblers one magical May day many years ago. It was near the top of an old oak, and its brilliant throat flashed among the spring greens of the new leaves. "Firethroat", its nickname, is a perfect descriptor.


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