|Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) (Audubon image)|
Each year, there are always a few late and errant migrants in my earliest counts. This year, for example, I heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler on my first foray into the woods on May 19. Black-throated Blues breed in the Appalachian highlands, New England, and southeastern Canada - they won't stay the summer in our humid lowland woods. Sure enough, the bird was nowhere to be heard two days later; it had moved on north.
However, on my first counting day, I also heard a Hooded Warbler singing in the forest. This bird is a furtive wraith rarely observed but much more often heard. Its call is distinctive and unmistakable: wheeta-wheeta-WHEET-see'o, repeated loudly and incessantly from the dense forest understory where the bird is lurking. Unlike most other warblers that breed further north and at higher elevations, the Hooded Warbler does breed in southeastern Pennsylvania, though it is rare. I have only documented breeding pairs in two other years during the 24 years I have been censusing birds in the forest.
This spring's Hooded Warbler stood its ground, singing for 30 minutes while I conducted the census where it had staked out its territory.
Then, when I returned to the woods two days later, the warbler was still present, but it had moved its singing perch over the crest of a ridge and about a half-kilometer deeper into the forest.
All of which got me thinking. (I have plenty of time to ruminate when I'm conducting the census.)
This poor Hooded Warbler, undoubtedly a male singing its heart out seeking a female, probably is out of luck this year unless it moves somewhere else. This forest in the preserve, while good habitat, is small and surrounded by suburbia. If there are no female Hooded Warblers in the forest, the chances of this male finding a mate are nil. It's not as if he could just fly a few hundred feet further along in the forest to another spot in hopes of luring a mate; if he were to fly a few hundred feet, he'd be in the middle of someone's back yard or in a business campus.
I couldn't help but feel sorry for this seemingly desperate bird - so clearly ready to find a mate, searching throughout the forest but unable to locate a female. If he does find a female, he'll sing most of the summer defending his territory. More likely, though, he'll go quiet. If that happens, I'll never know if he flew elsewhere where his prospects might be better, or if he simply sat out the summer to try again next year, here in the preserve or in another woodland.
If he stays, I'll keep you posted. For my census, the year is young; for a bird trying to find a mate, the clock is ticking.
David Robertson, Executive Director