Just the right gift: A wild warbler party on the gulf coast of Texas

Prothonotary Warbler. Above is a Chestnut-sided Warbler. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal.

Beverly’s favorite birds are warblers — the feisty, colorful world travelers that are among the hardest species to find. They’re shy, skittish and can move so quickly they’re often gone before you get a good look.

This week is Beverly’s birthday, which just happened to fall on a trip along the Louisiana and Texas coasts. It was a warbler party every day, as thousands upon thousands had just arrived from their wintering grounds in Latin America and the Caribbean. These songbirds are famished and fatigued, and for once don’t seem to mind us humans hanging around.

Hooded Warbler: “Would you like a close up?”

Some of the birds we’ve encountered are old acquaintances, such as the Prothonotary and Hooded warblers. In other parts of the country and at other times of the year we’ve had to chase them for days to get just a glimpse. But on this trip along the southern Gulf Coast, we’d been seeing Prothonotaries at almost every turn. A Hooded Warbler ambled around in the brush at my feet, as if saying, “How do I look from this angle?’’ and, “Would you like a close up?’’

Kentucky Warbler

Others were birds we’d never seen before — the Kentucky, the Golden-winged and the Tennessee. At the Sabine Woods Bird Sanctuary on the Upper Texas Coast, the Golden-winged Warbler was so hungry that it fluttered from tree to bush, hanging like an acrobat, feeding furiously with every stop.

Golden-winged Warbler: An acrobat of a bird

Many types of warblers are getting harder to see because their numbers are slipping away. A host of forces are working against them: Development is eating away at much of their habitat. Due to a warming climate, they can fall behind in their breeding routine if insects and plants blossom ahead of schedule. Warblers migrate thousands of miles twice a year, an exhausting journey that exposes them to hazards all along the way, such as colliding into skyscrapers. Even something as innocuous as a house cat is a severe threat unless it’s kept inside. Outdoor cats kill billions, (yes, billions), of birds, including warblers, every year in the United States alone.

Yellow Warbler

When you see warblers hit land just after their nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico, it’s easier to appreciate the breathtaking feat of migration. You can witness them gobbling up insects, fruit and worms in a glutinous spree that stains their beaks berry red. They’ve hardly swallowed, and it’s on to the next bite.

Migrators are traveling north on a mission, headed to their breeding grounds to claim a territory, find a mate and start a family. The males are dressed up in their springtime best for the courtship rituals ahead.

American Redstart (male)

While it’s hard to choose the most impressive warbler, I was struck that week with the near-neon glow of the black-and-orange America Redstart. Not long after we spotted the male, along came a female, so the fancy attire seemed to be working.

Thanks to the colorful feathers, and the fact that males sing in the spring, this is the best time to see warblers, especially if you’re not used to looking for them. For the best chance, head out to the nearest woods or the edge of a brambly hedge between dawn and roughly 10 a.m., wear clothes in dull colors of leaves or twigs, bring binoculars, stay still and listen for high-pitched chirping and buzzing.

Blackburnian Warbler: Plumage like a sunset

Sometimes the late afternoon can be productive. We caught a Blackburnian Warbler at the top of a tree just as dusk descended. Its plumage shone like a sunset in the last light of the day, a cascade of black, white, yellow and orange across his head.

American Redstart (female)

Beverly’s love of warblers has only grown as we’ve grown more familiar with them. That means I’ve spent many hours chasing them, too, trying for the perfect photograph. As often as not, we never get more than a glimpse of these hyperactive birds. The truth is, I’ve come to be as captivated as she is by these birds and their stories.

Here’s a gallery of some of the warblers we’ve seen the past few weeks. As you can see, these are birthday gifts that don’t need wrapping – each different than the last, but all of uncommon beauty.

This post is adapted from one in the spring of 2021 while we were traveling the country research our book on bird conservation. In case you missed them, we’re updating some of our favorite stories while working on the release of our book on April 18.

5 responses to “Just the right gift: A wild warbler party on the gulf coast of Texas”

  1. wonderful post love the pictures they are just starting to come here as well. Imagine the trip they have had of course they are so hungry!! wow…

    1. Awesome photos and article! I have to add a correction: #7 is not a prothonotary, it is a blue-winged warbler! Cheers!

  2. Virginia Reynolds Williams Avatar
    Virginia Reynolds Williams

    What an awesome show!

  3. Great pictures of variety’s from Texas…!
    Tho disagree with the assessment on cats; have had 15 all feral born over a 50yr period only one a female caught birds(which upset me) and she only caught 3…!
    All were great mousers and the oldest was still catching mice going on 20yrs old and I have pictures of him in the yard laying beside with baby robins(flightless) but never touched them…!

    I realize others may be more detrimental to a degree but not the billions stated…!
    * 50yrs of very close relationships with this many cats counts for more then a paid for statistic as to the actual reality observed on the ground….!
    Cats do a great service everywhere as mousers eliminating detrimental rodents that are a real problem…!

    1. Thanks very much for your note — and your question on feral cats. The disagreements over the role of cats is a long-running one with plenty of folks disputing these facts. But if you dig into this as we did, there’s no getting around the outsized role that cats play in the loss of bird populations. If you want the most definitive assessment, take a look at this book by Georgetown scientist Pete Marra: https://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/gear/books/cat-wars-well-written-summary-complicated-problem/

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