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Bay Area Birds: Warblers are jewels of the woods

By Charlie Frisk

Wood warblers make up for their small size with beautiful and vibrant plumage.

These jewels of the woods begin to arrive in Northeast Wisconsin in late April and continue through May.

Some species will nest here, but many warblers are just passing through to nesting grounds in the boreal forests of northern Wisconsin, the U.P. and Canada.

Most warblers are called neotropical migrants, meaning they over winter in Central and South America and migrate to North America to nest.

A few species such as yellow-rumped, black and white, and pine warblers overwinter in the southern U.S.

When people think of the ecological requirements of these migrants, there is a tendency to think of the importance of protecting their wintering sites in the tropics and their nesting areas in North America and to give short shrift to the importance of stop-over sites.

Imagine you’re driving across an empty area of the Great Plains.

You’re almost out of gas, and you and the kids are hungry and thirsty, but you’re not worried because you know in 5 miles there’s a truck stop with a great café.

When you get there, you find the truck stop was blown away by a tornado, and the only thing left is a sign saying “Next gas – 300 miles.”

Not a comfortable situation, and yet that is what happens to migrating birds when stop-over sites are lost to various types of development.

An extreme example of an important stop-over is South Padre Island on the very southern tip of Texas.

It’s the first landfall for birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico.

Birders travel from all over the country in April to view the fall out of birds that just crossed the gulf.

The phenomenon is called a fallout because the birds are so exhausted they literally fall out of the sky when they get to the island.

Particularly after a storm, wooded lots on the island teem with an eye-popping rainbow of warblers, tanagers, orioles and thrushes.

While on the island they re-charge on food, water and rest so they can continue on.

In the Green Bay area, the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary is an important stop-over.

Most terrestrial birds will avoid passing over large bodies of water if possible, so the location along the southeast corner of the bay intercepts a large number of migrants.

From the sanctuary, warblers can travel up either the west or the east side of the Bay of Green Bay.

Jim Johnson, a Bay Area Bird Club board member and a local bird expert, has been observing warblers at Bay Beach for 50 years.

He said he believes Bay Beach gets so many warblers because it provides good habitat in the right location.

Bay Beach has lots of box elders and cottonwoods, and the warblers will feed primarily on caterpillars and other insects on the branches of these trees.

“Migrant warblers can be seen at the sanctuary from April 15-May 28, but the migration peak is from May 10-20, and the high count usually falls between May 15-18,” Johnson said. “During the peak as many as 25 species can be seen in one day.”

Bay Beach also experiences fall outs of warblers.

These usually occur when strong north winds discourage the birds from continuing north and pile up at the sanctuary.

In 2002, Johnson observed 650 warblers, and in 2019 saw 1,400 warblers in one day on a memorable fall out.

The best way to learn about birds is to go with an expert.

Johnson will be leading bird hikes at the sanctuary May 5, 8, 12, 15 and 19.

Meet at 6:30 a.m. in the first parking lot by the director’s log cabin.

A good way to take your interest in birds to the next level is to join the Bay Area Bird Club.

The club is a birding group focused on bird hikes, programs and local and statewide conservation issues.

During non-COVID times it hosts eight field trips per year which are open and free to the public, as well as co-sponsoring a lecture series along with the local Audubon Society chapter.

Advanced birders from the club take joy in assisting new birders on hikes and field trips.

The club helps people learn where to look for birds, shares identification tips, and introduces folks to bird-related activities happening in the community.

Membership dues are $15 a year and include a monthly newsletter and updates on local birding field trips and activities.

To learn more or to join, contact club president, Nancy Nabak at [email protected].

Editor’s note: To read another article by Charlie Frisk, CLICK HERE.

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