I was faced with a difficulty, albeit enviable decision this weekend. Should I chase Clapper Rails and Seaside Sparrows at Jamaica Bay with Corey or visit Sterling Forest in search of specialty warblers? Tough one, right? Well, I decided to go with the latter, reasoning that rails and the like will be viable targets all summer long, but once the warblers at Sterling Forest stop breeding in mid-June, they stop singing. If I had any hope of spotting a Cerulean Warbler, an azure avian that has long eluded me, I’d be tracking it by song. So, my knotty choice was clear.
Actually, one other factor tipped the decision in favor of Sterling Forest: Michael Bochnik of Hudson River Audubon was leading a trip there. I always praise Michael’s birding and guiding skills because he is without a doubt one of the most thorough, thoughtful birders I’ve met. If anyone could rustle up a Cerulean, it would be him.
Note that Cerulean is hardly the only specialty warbler at Sterling Forest. The prevalence of breeding Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers helps make this location a permanent June fixture on most New York birding club calendars. In fact, on the way to the Nature Center, I stopped at a site off Long Meadow Road where Charlie and I spotted both of these Vermivora species last spring. Wouldn’t you know it, I encountered both birds within 100 feet of my car!
In fact, Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers appeared as often throughout the humid morning as more prosaic species like Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and American Redstart. Every one of these birds seemed to be purebred, most unexpected in light of the persistent hybridization between these two but lending credence to the rumor that Sterling Forest is one of the few areas in which the populations remain discrete. Note that we also encountered Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black and White Warbler, and Ovenbird, while hearing one Hooded and lots of Prairie. But you don’t want to hear about those winsome warblers, do you?
The topic of this post is Cerulean Warbler, specifically MY Cerulean Warbler. Michael knew where these treetop tricksters tend to congregate. It wasn’t long at all before we heard the buzzy call of Dendroica cerulea. But warbler watchers out there know full well that there is a world of difference between hearing this elusive avian and seeing it. We lost one, then found another, chasing it across a parking lot and a road, until finally, the blue male emerged from cover for a full two seconds before plunging back into the canopy. In that brief span, I raised my bins and locked on. This was far from an ideal sighting of a life bird, particularly one as beautiful as the cerulean, but you can’t unlook at a bird. I finally saw a Cerulean Warbler! I sincerely hope my next view is more detailed.
Overall, the woods were unexpectedly quiet. Common local species like Indigo Bunting and Baltimore Oriole appeared in lower numbers than usual. We couldn’t even scare up an empid, settling for Great-crested Flycatcher and Eastern Phoebe. My favorite non-warbler sighting of the day was a brilliant Yellow-throated Vireo, distant but showing well. Add this to the usual raptors, vultures, and commonplace birds, along with a welcome Ruby-throated Hummingbird miles from the nearest backyard feeder, and you’ve got the makings of a mighty morning of birding. Thanks to the broader naturalist leanings of the Hudson River Audubon constituency, the butterfly, bug, and bloom watching went pretty well too.
I’d also like to note that Corey got all his target birds, so my decision would have been a winner either way!
Golden-winged Warbler female (gathering nesting material?)