It is always nice finding your targets on a big photography trip but the icing on the cake is finding the unexpected. That is what happened here when Casey and spent some time at Moro Bay State Park in southern Arkansas. When speaking to a very friendly park ranger, he let us on to where a pair of these birds setup territory and were virtually oblivious to humans. These birds completely ignored us as they flew to and from their favorite perches, often flying mere feet over our heads. We watched the male handoff their insect prey a number of times and even witnessed a copulation, but those photos were ruined by branches.
The Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) is another weirdo in the Parulidae family. It is the only extant member of the genus, Mniotilta, and it definitely stands out against the other wood warblers that we find in Missouri. Whereas other warblers flit about the leaves at ends of branches, through bush or along forest floors, gleaning for arthropods, the Black-and-white Warbler finds another niche. It forages by hugging tree trunks and inner branches, much like a nuthatch or creeper. The interesting genus name apparently comes from another of this bird’s behaviors. This name comes from the Ancient Greek mnion, meaning “seaweed”, and tillo, “to pluck”. Apparently, Black-and-white Warblers strip mosses and reindeer lichens to line their nests, which they make in mature forests across much of eastern and central North America.
With the relatively recent removal of the Yellow-breasted Chat from the Parulidae, the title of the largest new world “wood warbler” may very well go to the Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla. The Ovenbird is somewhat of a misfit itself. Seiurus is a monotypic genus, believed to have derived early in the evolution of the family. This pot-bellied, thrush-like bird nests and forages on the forest floor, getting its common name from its nest that supposedly resembles a Dutch oven.
Although the Ovenbird can be easily heard through much of the summer in any large-track deciduous forest, getting good looks and photographs is easiest by waiting to spot them in a migration trap like Tower Grove Park in St. Louis City where these photos were taken.
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
The Swainson’s Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii) is a very secretive bird whose summer nesting range occurs in the southeastern United States. It requires a habitat of dense undergrowth and heavy leaf litter for foraging and nesting and, in Missouri, this species is rarely found north of the Current River watershed. It’s safe to say that in the St. Louis birding community, the most popular bird of the past week is a Swainson’s Warbler that has apparently set up a territory along the Lost Valley Trail in Weldon Spring Conservation Area in St. Charles County.
Named for William John Swainson, a naturalist, illustrator and contemporary of John James Audubon, the Swainson’s Warbler could fit in well in the lush habitat of this section of Weldon Spring C.A. Here it will compete with the bounty of other low-feeding passerines found here like the Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Worm-eating Warbler and the occasional Hooded Warbler. Like we needed another reason to love birding at this location!
The Swainson’s Warbler is definitely not your typical species of wood warbler. The Parulidae family is well known for the gem-like coloration and spectacular patterns of many of it’s species. The Swainson’s Warbler, however, has a color and pattern more adapted to a lifestyle of foraging in the leaf litter and spending time in the dark understory of swamps and bottomland forests. This bird has a brownish back and lighter, white to cream-coloration on its breast. This typical countershading coloration allows it to blend in and virtually disappear within its environment. There is no sexual dimorphism in the coloration of this species – males and females are virtually identical, unlike other species of warblers also found along the Lost Valley Trail like the American Redstart and the Cerulean Warbler.
The bird is rather flat-headed with a much longer and stronger bill than most other warbler species. It is also known for its pink-colored and strong legs. These adaptations are probably helpful while lifting dead leaves and other detritus of the forest floor while it forages for its arthropod prey.
It is this author’s opinion that the song of the Swainson’s Warbler is one of the most satisfying of bird songs. It sounds like it took the stuttering song of the Louisiana Waterthrush (a closely related species) and perfected it. I can still completely enjoy myself just being in the woods with these guys singing. Be prepared for frustration if you are waiting for one of these birds to pop out of the dense understory to get a nice clear look.
Here you can find video of singing Cerulean and Swainson’s Warblers I took years ago at the Greer Spring Access location.
Colombia, MO has had one or more Swainson’s Warblers for the past five years or so. Will this species become a regular at Lost Valley Trail? Is this one of the “good consequences” of climate change? It should be mentioned there have been a few reports that there are currently more than one bird along the trail. Some have claimed two males in separate territories and/or two birds spotted at the same location, indicating the potential presence of a female. I have spent four mornings over the past week looking for this bird and have seen no evidence of more than a single male yet, but there is always that potential.
Best of luck to those going to try for this bird. You would be hard pressed to think of a better place to spend some hours on a spring morning.
Thanks for visiting and let me know if you have had success hearing or laying eyes on this bird or if you have had any luck finding evidence of more than the one bird.
This spring has been flying by. With great cool and wet weather, the spring ephemeral wildflower season has been one of the best I’ve experienced and in the past two weeks the bird diversity has been on the rise. Just today, I had a Wood Thrush, a Cooper’s Hawk and a Barn Swallow from my suburban yard alone! This morning I found a Sedge Wren in the grasses at Beckemeier Conservation Area among about half a dozen warblers.
I hope you are getting out to enjoy some of this action and I want to share a few photos of one of my many favorites, this Worm-eating Warbler that is already setting up territory at Bush Wildlife Conservation Area.
Thank you for visiting!
This year it looks like the popular roosting tree at the Grafton, IL Visitor’s Center is playing host to this gray morph Eastern Screech Owl. I have photographed red morph individuals in previous years that were using this same cavity. You can find a few photos of those here and here. There have been reports of brown or “chocolate” morphs being found here or in another nearby location over the past couple of years, but as of yet, I have not been able to photograph that color morph.
My friend Dave and I made this visit and were fortunate to find this bird somewhat active. For a Screech Owl in the daytime, this is fortunate indeed. By “active” I simply mean it would move in and out of its tree cavity and open its eyes to have a look around once in a while.
We were told by a local constable that the name they have given the bird was “Winky,” which I find to be pretty apt for an owl. One thing we noticed during this visit is that the unobstructed viewing lanes are becoming harder to find due to the encroachment of the bush honeysuckle growth. Dave and I could only find two lanes that worked well for photography purposes. If I can confirm they do not use this cavity in the summer, I would like to return to do a little landscaping.
While we waited for the owl to return from its hiding inside the tree, we had a nice opportunity to photograph a Pileated Woodpecker that had flown in to forage among the dogwood berries.
Thanks for the visit and take care.