GLEN ROSE, TX, MARCH 2007 – The Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) is one of the United States less accessible avian species. The golden-cheek closely resembles its cousin, the Black-throated Green Warbler, but its coloration is high contrast black, white, and brilliant yellow. This lovely little wood warbler winters in Mexico and Central America, migrating only as far north as a comma-shaped swathe in central Texas to breed. Since I was in Texas, somewhat close to its exotic center, stalking the Golden-cheeked Warbler seemed the sensible, hopefully serendipitous thing to do.
I say serendipitous because this search was all David’s idea. Surely you know David Ringer through his outstanding work at Search and Serendipity, Birdstack, and of course here at 10,000 Birds! Not only is he one of our more contemplative bird bloggers, but his dispatches from far-flung locations like Papua New Guinea have been revelatory. David pointed out that an excursion to Dinosaur Valley State Park would place us right in the path of golden-cheek males returning from their southern sojourns, ready to establish territory by singing in a rather conspicuous manner. We’d also have a shot at the highly coveted Black-capped Vireo and a slew of other regional species. Sign me up!
He wasn’t kidding about Dinosaur Valley’s virtues as an avian oasis (although speaking of kidding, who do the clowns behind the neighboring Creation Evidence Museum think they’re fooling?) We arrived at first light only to be met by a Lark Sparrow, one of the beautiful brown birds on my list of hopefuls. The Lark Sparrow, more boldly marked than many of its compeers, graciously remained still just long enough for me to snap some photos.
Our search for the Golden-cheeked Warbler took us up into some spectacular habitat. Here, the Ashe juniper the golden-cheek requires covers a rocky, cactus- and oak-studded ridge with fragrant, luxuriant growth. This tree, known also as the mountain cedar, has spread beyond central Texas to bedevil ranchers and landscapers alike, but the endangered warbler that depends on it has not. Along the trail, we encountered numerous juncos, cardinals, mockingbirds, White-eyed Vireos, Carolina Chickadees, both Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and some rather interesting titmice. This area is where the range of the Tufted Titmouse intersects with that of its Black-crested kin. Kissing cousins is more like it since the titmice we spotted possessed traits of both species. These intermediates were more dominant Black-crested, which makes them good enough for my life list. Who am I to judge?
Our plan of attack had us ascending to the top of the ridge while listening for the golden-cheek’s distinctive, buzzy call, a song that was music to our ears when we first heard it. Trying to put the face to the voice became much more difficult than anticipated as the birds we sought traced an unpredictable path through the trees. We would no sooner track a singing male to a tree than it would disappear for twenty minutes at a time. Even when we did manage to get to the bird’s perch, we couldn’t get as much as a glimpse of it through the thick, evergreen growth. How impenetrable were these dark, towering bushes? To give you an example, we were surrounded at all times by Black-and-white Warblers, easily one of the most visible of the wood-warbler family. In two hours, we spotted only one shadowed individual.
We fought the good fight. I can assure you of that. But every time we reeled this big fish in, it got away again. That saucy miscreant teased us, taunted us, froze us in place, but also eluded us at every turn. After a while, I strongly suspected a malign genius at work, as if the Golden-cheeked Warbler were, in fact, a will-o’-the-wisp determined to lead us over a cliff. Seeking to avert our doom and salvage the expedition, we abandoned the ridge to search for the Black-capped Vireo.
No warbler over there
The habitat favored by the vireo was more of a dry savannah carpeted by dry desert grasses, midsize bushes, early flowers, and lots of cactus. Live oaks dotted the flat terrain, but didn’t seem to shelter any vireos. A slew of sparrows enjoyed the area, though, including Field, Lincoln’s, Song, White-crowned, Rufous-crowned, and Vesper, those last lovely two new to me. We heard boatloads of Bewick’s Wren, but saw only bright Carolina, as well as Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, Purple Martin, Bank Swallow, Spotted Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Red-bellied Woodpecker, but no vireo.
Having given up on one bird, we were on the cusp of abandoning another. The gray, drizzling day was fun, but a long drive lay ahead. Just as we were about to turn around, we heard that mocking song that had been seared into our brain by the morning’s frustration. A Golden-cheeked Warbler was very near! We gave chase, pursuing our elusive, unseen quarry as it led us down a long trail. Every time we got close, it moved further along, probably hoping to land us in quicksand or a mess of fire ants. But just when all seemed lost, when our quest seemed destined for more abject failure, I caught a glimpse of the bird. More than a glimpse, I got a perfectly framed view of a dazzling male Golden-cheeked Warbler in full song. In no time, David got the golden-cheek too. For a full minute or more, we enjoyed this beauty with its flashing cheeks and jet black hood. Consider the Golden-cheeked Warbler, a true North American rarity, stalked.
This week, 8 May – 14 May 2011, is Wood-Warbler Week on 10,000 Birds! Though wood-warblers, the mostly brightly colored birds of the family Parulidae, are only found in the New World we felt that birders the world over would be pleased to see a plethora of posts about these striking and sought after species. We are devoting a whole week to wood-warblers but are only just barely scratching the surface of possible topics involving this amazing family of birds.
Right now great flocks of wood-warblers are making their way north from the southern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America to breed across the United States and Canada. Many other non-migratory wood-warbler species are living their lives across the neotropics, doing their best to survive and pass on their genes. Wood-Warbler Week is a celebration of all wood-warblers and we hope you join us in celebrating these absolutely wonderful birds. Read about them here but also get out and experience them. You won’t regret it!