The Warblers are coming!

The Nature of PEI by Gary Schneider

Male Black-throated Green Warbler

There are many special times to be a birding enthusiast on Prince Edward Island. Watching Northern Gannets as they soar over the waters off East Point in the fall. Taking part in the Christmas Bird Count and finding Snow Buntings and Rough-legged Hawks. Or, from a distance, seeing Piping Plovers and their young on a beautiful Island beach in July. Really, there is no bad time to be a birder here.

Yet the spring migration of warblers is extra special. It is not just that these birds have returned to our province to raise a family, but that they do it with such a splash.

First, a bit about warblers. They are a family of small birds (about the size of a Black-capped Chickadee) that all have some kind of musical song. These can range from the loud “teacher, teacher, teacher” of the Ovenbird to the almost zipper-like song of the Northern Parula.  

The colours of many migrant warblers can be incredible. It is the males that moult into beautiful spring colours and give us some gorgeous reds, oranges, even blues, at times making it look like someone has decorated our forests. The sight of a Blackburnian Warbler or an American Redstart in breeding plumage is not quickly forgotten.

Given our winters and the fact that they are insectivores, all warblers are migratory in this climate. I’ve often heard reports of Islanders spending part of the winter in Cuba or other southern climes and being surprised to see so many of “our” warblers there. But they’re just migrating to places where they can find insects.

Some species are short-distance migrants, coming up from the southern states, while others winter in Mexico and even into South America. Over 20 species of warblers nest in the province, while some—including the Blackpoll Warbler—we only see on their way to or from nesting grounds in the northern boreal forest.

Getting back to birding, it is exciting when you get out and hear the returning American robins, Common Grackles, and Red-winged Blackbirds singing up a storm. A sure sign of spring. But somehow, it is that first call of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler that lets you know that there soon will be a flood arriving from the south. And it really can be a flood. Species often fly together on migration, and when the weather changes, large numbers will drop into an area. I’ve seen flocks or 30 Yellow-Rumped Warblers descend on the dam at the Macphail Homestead in Orwell, along with a few of our other early species such as Black-throated Greens and Cape Mays. But there have been reports of much larger gatherings. This phenomenon is called a “fallout” of warblers, as they literally just drop out of the sky. 

One of my favourite activities at Macphail Woods (macphailwoods.org) is our annual Birds and Breakfast, run in conjunction with the Macphail Homestead. This year it is on Saturday, May 18th. There is a free breakfast, starting at 7 am.  Then at 8 am, we’ll walk the woodland trails and look for a variety of year-round resident birds as well as our spring visitors. It is a great opportunity to see everything from Common Yellowthroats to Blackburnian Warblers. We’ll have extra binoculars on hand and be accompanied by some excellent birders to help with identification. Everyone is welcome, no matter your age or skill level.

And if you are interested in learning more about warblers, or birds of any kind, check out Nature PEI (naturepei.ca). They often run bird identification workshops throughout the year.