“April Madness:” Migrating Warblers Visit Manasota Key, FL

During spring time a virtual river of birds migrates from Mexico, and Central and South America to the eastern United States and Canada. These neotropical migrants take advantage of the mild weather and abundant food in northern latitudes during the breeding season, and escape the northern winters by flying far to the south. Some of the most exciting avian migrants are the wood warblers, tiny gems that are hardly noticed by those who are not birders. The arrival of most of these migrants in Florida is unpredictable since the bulk of the movement is from the Yucatan Peninsula to the northern Gulf states and they land on Florida shores primarily when there are strong westerly winds. These tiny birds also migrate mainly at night, are generally silent, and are often unseen even when present in significant numbers.

We live on Manasota Key, a barrier island in Charlotte County, FL, which is well situated to receive migrating birds blown by westerly winds from their normal northerly track from Mexico. In early April we noticed some neotropical migrants such as summer tanagers, orchard orioles and prothonotary warblers that were primarily interested in eating our ripe white mulberries. But in middle April the strangler figs on some trees were ripe and these are very attractive to hungry migrant birds. On the morning of April 18 while emptying the garbage, we noticed some warblers in one of our large stranglers and starting watching more carefully. We also have two dripping water baths that attract thirsty birds. We observed 31 species of birds including the extraordinary number (for a residential yard) of 11 types of warblers (ovenbird, worm eating, black and white, Tennessee, Nashville, common yellowthroat, northern parula, blackpoll, black throated blue, palm and prairie). The day before we also saw a very unusual Lawrence’s warbler, which is a backcross hybrid between the blue winged and golden winged warblers.

The attached photo of an adult male blackpoll warbler was taken in our gardenia shrub next to a water drip. This cryptic warbler is a species that has an unusual migratory pattern from northern South America directly across the Gulf of Mexico, heading for boreal breeding sites in northern Canada and Alaska. Its unusual yellow/orange legs help to identify it in the fall when it loses its distinctive breeding plumage. We are so thrilled to see these wonderful birds up close and personal when in VA near our farm they are hardly visible high in the forest trees.

The yard bird checklist can be viewed online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S29050766

Strangely enough if you passed by our yard on busy N Beach Rd while we were in the throes of warbler-mania, craning our necks to look high into a large strangler fig, you would have seen and heard little. This is a remarkable ephemeral phenomenon seen by the few who understand the excitement generated by “April madness,” when migrating warblers occasionally visit us and thrill us with their colors and unusual life histories.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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