Tuesday, April 28, 2009

New River Warbler Wars

Northern Parula
People tend to think of birdsong as only a beautiful part of nature, to be enjoyed in the spring. For the birds, singing in the spring is a much more serious matter. There are territories to be established and protected against intruders. This is war!

Blackburnian Warbler

As we walk among the trees, we hear a Parula singing to the left. Then another answers from the right. Listening carefully, we can sometimes establish the "front" between two competing males. The iPod calls in one of them. "Who are you and what are you doing on my turf?" he demands. If no other male of his species is discovered he goes back to foraging. Occasionally, we manage to attract both males, and then the chase begins. Bird ethics prescribe only limited use of bird calling like this, to allow the birds to live their lives without interruption and needless expenditure of energy needed for attracting a mate and raising a brood. I agree, but it is fun to actually see the bird in question, rather than marking most of my list as "heard only."

Black-throated Blue Warbler

I am so glad for those hours in the car listening to the birdsong CDs now. At least I have some clue as to what birds are around, even if I have trouble finding the little trillers in the branches straight above my head. The trip leaders here at New River are wonderful about making sure everyone gets to see the bird of the moment. I don't have enough words to describe the bright bright orange in the Blackburnian Warbler we found this morning. Bare branches add to the challenge of getting a good photo. The squeaky wagon sound did in fact come from a Black and White Warbler. Cute little Black Capped Chickadees (the northern guys) cleaned out a nest hole, removing wood chips and dumping them faster than the speed of light almost.

Black and White Warbler

Today's trip climbed 4,000 feet in elevation to Cranberry Glade, a trip to the boreal bogs of New England, right here in the Appalachians of West Virginia. The National Park Service has a boardwalk to protect the fragile bog habitat. Imagine this in the fall, with the trees and cranberry bushes all turning red.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage

The boggy environment does not carry many nutrients in the soil, and we found several carnivorous plants, which eat insects to obtain nitrogen they can't get from the soil. I've seen Skunk Cabbage in wet areas of the Pacific Northwest, and Pitcher plants in coastal Alabama where similar bogs can be found. The Eastern Skunk Cabbage produces its stinky blossom on the ground, before sprouting any leaves. The Western Skunk Cabbage grows a bright yellow blossom on a tall stalk, much different than the Eastern.

Pitcher Plant - Carnivorous

Due to the higher elevation in the Glade, spring is several weeks behind what we see elsewhere. Few trees are blooming, but Marsh Marigolds brighten the landscape in all directions. The food at the festival is excellent! All meals are included in the package, and they are far better than what I would find at the neighborhood fast food restaurants if left to my own resources. A hot breakfast greeted us in an open gazebo above the Gorge at 6:00 am. Heaven bless a good caterer! A display of moths clinging to the restroom walls under a lamp added an extra treat. This luna moth wins the prize for Flashiest Moth. Several other small greys would have been completely invisible on their normal tree bark perches (this was was park brown.) A few little white moths were just asking for trouble against the dark wall.

Tomorrow it may rain, but we are all ready for it. Let the birding continue!

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