Sunday, July 5, 2009

Typical Songbird Photograph: Identity Revealed

The Hawthorn Orchard, where I took that poor-quality photograph in last week's teaser post, is a remarkable patch during spring migration. Hawthorn flowers bring in the insects, which bring in the migrating birds. And in mid-late May there are a lot of flowering Hawthorns, a lot of insects, and therefore a lot of songbirds. Most hawthorns in the orchard are less than 30 feet tall, many only 15 - 20 feet high. The best way to avoid "warbler neck"? Don't look up, look horizontal! This is where you go for paralyzing looks at warblers that are often difficult to lay glass on - Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Wilson's, Tennessee, and many, many more.

Luckily, the photo I presented was the last in the series. While trolling through the shrubby Hawthorns I successfully tracked down a lively weeta-weeta-weetsee.

The singer was a very handsome male Magnolia Warbler, a species Alexander Wilson originally called "Black-and-Yellow Warbler" when he collected one from a Magnolia tree in 1810. That was unfortunate, and not just for the individual he shot: he selected "magnolia" as the scientific name, Dendroica magnolia. Unfortunately, magnolia trees are not a big part of this species life history. These birds like dense, young growth; nests are usually in a conifer.

No matter, a rose by any other name still looks stunning. I had a reasonable amount of time to witness him flitting among the branches of a Hawthorn, maybe 20 feet from me. Eventually I had the presence of mind to drop the binoculars and raise the camera, capturing some foraging behavior.

Classic Magnolia Warbler foraging, scanning and probing the
undersides of leaves from below. Note the undertail pattern, as the
white patch towards the body and wide, dark band across the tips
are a very useful diagnostic feature for identifying tail-only birds.

Magnolia Warblers, or "Maggies" if you're in the hip birding crowd (a group who must all have Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" running through their head whenever someone finds one), feed primarily on caterpillars and a variety of other tree-dwelling organisms: leaf beetles, weevils, leafhoppers, spiders. This one thoroughly scanned the leaves, striking at unseen (to me) items. While they typically focus on the undersides of leaves and conifer needles, this one was checking every surface. Sometimes twice.

Any morning where you stumble across a beauty like this is an unequivocal successful trip. Enjoy this sequence of Maggie foraging - he was trying every leaf, bud, nook, and cranny. As always, click on the images for larger versions.

"Hullo, what's this?"

"Ah, yes, this looks promising indeed."

Smacks mandibles, munch, munch

"Blechh! Oooh, what's up here?"

This went on for a few minutes, until I got the parting shot. Now do you see a Maggie?

There is a bird in there, promise.
Click on the image for a larger version.



nishiki_85 said...


Great series of the foraging Maggie. It was well enjoyed.


deejbrown said...

This series of photos left me smiling, not a usual thing for a workweek Monday! Lovely!

Nate said...

Ah, I should have known. Cape May probably wouldn't have been in the small trees...

Great shots, they've always been one of my very favorites. I'm a sucker for the bandito mask. I had a foraging Mag this spring that would have given me similar shots had I a camera and the skill to wield it.

noflickster said...

Thanks, all. I was particularly proud these shots came out as well as they did.

@nishiki_85 - apologies to you, I should have mentioned you nailed the identification from the challenging "fleeing shot" alone. There are some aspects of "scheduled posts" that don't work so well!

@deejbrown - that may be the nicest compliment I've ever received, thank you! As I often heard while living in the south, "Shoot, y'all're gonna make me blush!"

@Nate - I was actually hoping to find a Cape May that morning, this "hotspot" does attract a crazy diversity of migrants, including those you'd never expect in such a habitat. The magic of the Hawthorns! BTW, not mentioned formally but I did make the plunge and have the camera, now I'm working on the skill. I suppose it helps to know what you're doing.

Thanks again, y'all,

laura K said...

Really nice shots, and I enjoy your writing, as always.


noflickster said...

@Laura_K - thanks, as always! Too bad the Hawthorns weren't a publicly-known hotspot back in the day, we could have racked up a lot of great birds (and photos, if we were shutterbugs back in the same day).


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