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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #8: Cape May Warbler

This morning I saw a Cape May Warbler for the first time. It was sitting near the top of a short locust tree, minding its own business while it foraged among the leaves. The male Cape May Warbler is one of the most distinctive birds in its family. Its orange cheek patches stand out against its lemon yellow head and breast, streaked with fine black spots. Its wings are tinged with a yellow-green and have white greater coverts. The black streaking on a yellow background gives the species its Latinized name, Dendroica tigrina (tiger-like tree-dweller). The photograph below shows a spring male; for other plumages, see Giff Beaton's Warblers page (scroll down).

Cape May Warbler / Photo by Steve Maslowski, USFWS

Contrary to its name, the Cape May Warbler does not breed or winter in Cape May, New Jersey. Its name was given by Alexander Wilson on account of the location where the first specimen was collected in 1811, most likely on migration. This warbler breeds in northern coniferous forests from the Yukon Territories east to Nova Scotia. Several northeastern states have breeding populations, particularly Maine, but also mountainous regions of New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. It winters in the Bahamas, Greater Antilles, and southern Central America. In spring and fall migration the species may be seen across eastern North America.

During the breeding season, Cape May Warblers feed primarily on spruce budworms near the tops of trees. Such a specialized niche limits the species's numbers, but allows it to coexist with other species that use the same habitat. In migration, they may drink nectar from flowers or eat catkins from trees, as the one I saw this morning was doing.

Since Cape May Warblers spend much of their time at the tops of trees, they can often be difficult to see. To find a Cape May Warbler for yourself, it may be helpful to learn its song. The song is very high-pitched and can be difficult to hear, especially in noisy areas. It consists of 5-6 clear high notes, generally on one pitch. Since only a few eastern warblers have similar high-pitched calls, it is always worth investigating the source; it just might be a gem.

Crossposted at A DC Birding Blog.



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