The Cape May Warbler

Photo by Susan Crossett

What do I know of a Cape May Warbler?

#1. I have been to Cape May, New Jersey, but that was earlier in my life, before I had much of any interest in looking at birds.

#2. My daughter’s piano tuner stopped tuning to point out to her the song of a Cape May Warbler just outside her window.

#3. It may have a distinct song but not enough to qualify for inclusion in my Backyard Birdsong Guide.

In fact, a marvelous new addition to my shelf, Sibley Birds East, describes the song of a Cape May Warbler as “very high and thin; may sound slightly buzzy; four to seven upslurred notes seet seet seet seet or witse witse witse witse.”

Dr. Scott Shalaway devoted two newspaper columns to various warblers without ever mentioning ours. Face it. Warblers, in spite of their name, really are not outstanding tunesmiths. Let’s leave that talent to the robins, cardinals and others of their ilk.

Preferring to winter in the Bahamas and Greater Antilles, the Cape May will wend its way north in springtime, moving up both Florida coasts but then through and mostly west of the Appalachians to find us in the Great Lakes region.

Females and the kids tend to resemble other warblers but the adult male found in his breeding plumage from March to April clearly stands out. Its breast is deeply streaked with black and it has a bold face pattern which makes them immediately recognizable with “chestnut auriculars, a black eye line, a yellow and chestnut supercilium, and a large yellow patch on the side of the neck behind the auricular.” Translated, we’re looking for birdy “ears” and eyebrows.

One stopped here, quite stunned, which allowed me to get such great closeups. A brief respite in my convalescent cage and it was ready to be released. It always pleases me to see such an unusual bird — well, any bird actually — get on its way again.

I think of warblers as … well, mostly yellow, for our most common one here is the Yellow Warbler with its striped chest. I can happily spot the Yellow in the trees just beyond my windows. If I’ve ever heard any warble, I have not been aware.

My Cape May has the distinct bruise-red markings around his eye. The Bay-Breasted Warbler, which can also be around here, has borrowed that same chestnut shade but dipped his entire head into it with the exception of the black eye. Nope, see one Cape May and I don’t think you’ll forget it.

To me, this little bird has the distinct disadvantage of always looking angry. Perhaps that’s helped to make him such a terror. Actually, there may be justification for that angry red spot for this bird is considered aggressive and pugnacious. At any time of year it will frequently chase away any other birds near its favorite feeding areas. Its preferred diet is heavy in nectar, the primary source of its battles. It will also feast on fruits when necessary, more in fact than other warblers. “The thin, sharp, slightly decurved bill is related to the species’ habit of feeding on nectar and puncturing small fruits, as is the relatively tubular and brushy-tipped tongue. Late fall and early winter stragglers in the far north may use suet feeders, hummingbird feeders, and sap well drilled by sapsuckers.” It can also be found puncturing grapes to suck out the juice.

“Eagerly sought, joyously welcomed, and enthusiastically praised” by most, the Cape May has been described as a quiet bird, “not exhibiting the nervousness of most warblers.” It’s also “peculiar in its disposition to stop in the spring migration to feed in a small clump of trees and to remain there for three to six days at a time, before going on to its Canadian breeding home.”

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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