CAPE MAY WARBLER FOR MAY: WHAT’S IN A NAME?


Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

CAPE MAY WARBLER FOR MAY: WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The history of ornithological classification and nomenclature is littered with peculiarities, of which the attractive Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina provides a good example. And May is obviously the perfect month to feature this little bird.

The range of the species is well defined. In the summer the birds live within a broad band that straddles northern USA and Canada. In the winter they head south with all their migratory warbler cousins. Again, the target area is in a quite specific range.

As with all migratory species, some birds each year will wander or be blown off-course; or will take a rest stop en route and decide to stick around. And so it was that in May 1812, a month before the Battle of Waterloo, the first specimen of the species was collected on Cape May by George Ord during a trip with naturalist ALEXANDER WILSON (he of plover & snipe fame). To be specific, they had gone to shoot the birds they wanted to collect; the little bodies were after all the only irrefutable evidence of a new ‘find’ at that time.

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

As Wilson later wrote (and note his use of the words ‘shooting excursion’ and ‘ransacked’)

THIS new and beautiful little species was discovered in a maple swamp, in Cape May county, not far from the coast, by Mr. George Ord of this city, who accompanied me on a shooting excursion to that quarter in the month of May last…The same swamp that furnished us with this elegant little stranger, and indeed several miles around it, were ransacked by us both for another specimen of the same; but without success. Fortunately it proved to be a male, and being in excellent plumage, enabled me to preserve a faithful portrait of the original.

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

The odd (indeed ‘Ord’) thing was that the specimen was a complete one-off at that time. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we can say it came in the category of ‘rare vagrant’: no other specimen of this species (named Sylvia maritima by Wilson) was seen on Cape May for more than a century… Then in 1920, another example was found. Over the succeeding years sightings have gradually increased, and the CMW is no longer regarded as unusual in the location that gave it its name. It has become an uncommon migrant instead.

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

On Abaco, CMWs are classified as WR1, which is to say common winter residents. Males have striking chestnut cheeks in the breeding season, with strong streaking on the underside. Note also the black eyestripe. Females and juveniles are paler and the marking is less prominent. These warblers are insectivorous; in winter they may also feed on nectar and fruit. Behaviour-wise, they have aggressive tendencies in defence of their territory and of their food sources. 

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Becky Marvil)

In researching this post, I discovered a strange (but slightly dull) fact. The CMW is unique among warblers in having a tubular tongue to enable nectar feeding (as with hummingbirds). This random fact hardly has the makings of a chat-up line, I do realise, but considering the multitude of warbler species in existence, the CMW has the benefit of a rather special adaptation. It’s one that Darwin himself might rightly be proud to have observed.

Tongue 2 (bottom left) is the CMW; No.5 is a bananaquit’s feathery tongue

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

WHAT SHOULD I LISTEN OUT FOR?

Unhelpfully, even the authorities have a tough time describing the song and call of a CMW. As with so many song-birds, variations on the theme “the song is a simple repetition of high tsi notes; the call is a thin sip” are the best you can hope for. However, it’s worth noting that the species generally prefers to sing from high perches. But then so do many others I’m afraid. Here’s something more practical  – the tsi and the sip:

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

ALL BIRDS, EXCEPT THE LAST, PHOTOGRAPHED ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

  • Photo Credits: Charmaine Albury [from The Birds of Abaco] (1); Bruce Hallett (2, 6); Sandy Walker (3, 4, 7); Becky Marvil (5); Danny Sauvageau (8).
  • Drawing, Nat Geo
  • Range map, Wiki.
  • Audio clips Martin St-Michel / Xeno-Canto;
  • Research refs include, with thanks, American Ornithological Society / Bob Montgomerie (Queen’s University); Camino Travel Costa Rica / OS

Cape May Warbler (Danny Sauvageau)

MELLOW YELLOW: HOODED WARBLERS ON ABACO


Hooded Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

MELLOW YELLOW: HOODED WARBLERS ON ABACO

The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) breeds in eastern North America in summer, and winters in Central America and the West Indies. On Abaco they are classed as WR3, ‘uncommon winter residents’. The range map below reveals one strange aspect of their habitat. It looks as though they choose not to live in Florida either in summer or winter. I’m sure they must be found there as transients; and there must presumably be some small breeding or wintering populations in Florida. Or both. But it’s hard to understand why Florida does not seem to suit them.

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ABACO WARBLER HOTSPOT

On Abaco, I have only ever had reports of Hooded Warblers from Man-o-War Cay, which seems to be a warbler hotspot every season. There are 37 WARBLER SPECIES recorded for Abaco. FIVE WARBLER SPECIES are year-round residents. Of the migratory 32, at least two dozen seem to favour Man-o-War for their winter break in the sun. MoW resident Charmaine Albury, who took the main photos in this post, has already counted 14 different warbler species before the end of September. She has found up to 5 species in a tree at the same time. 

Hooded Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

There are periodic upheavals in Birdland which, following research, lead to an official reclassification of a particular bird species or genus. In 2011, many warblers that were cheerfully going about their business under the classification Dendroica found themselves merged into the older ‘priority’ genus Setophaga (Greek for ‘moth eating’). The Hooded Warbler, formerly Wilsonia, has found itself similarly merged into Setophaga – a kick in the teeth for the naturalist ALEXANDER WILSON, for whom the bird was named (along with many others – his plover being a well-known example on Abaco).

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WHY ‘CITRINA”? (FUN FACT!)

The word relates to lemons – citrus fruits – and their colour, and is undoubtedly apt for the hooded warbler. However the semi-precious calcite gem, ‘Citrine’ (same word origin) is not lemon coloured but (disappointingly) brownish.

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Hooded Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

This little warbler has a plain olive / greeny-brown back, and a bright yellow face and underparts. There are white feathers on the outsides of their under-tail (I’m sure there’s a more technical word for this…) – see header image. Only males have the black hoods and bibs; females have an olive-green cap. 

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Hoodies forage for insects in low vegetation and dense undergrowth, or catch them by HAWKING from a branch or twig. Sadly, they are one of the species that are targeted by brown-headed cowbirds, the cruel exponents of brood parasitismThese birds are rarely found transients on Abaco at present, but they are a robust species and there is evidence that their range is increasing. In some areas there are controlled (euphemism for… er… dispensed with). I’d favour that approach for Abaco, should they show signs of inflicting their evil ways on the resident breeding population of small birds.

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Hooded Warbler in Audubon’s Birds of America

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

I am often at sea with the attempts to turn birdsong into to memorable words of phrases. Yes, a Bobwhite sounds a bit like a quizzical ‘Bob… White?‘. But I rarely ‘get’ the “I’d-like-a-Kalik-with-my-Conch” and suchlike. For what it is worth, I learn that for the Hooded Warbler “the song is a series of musical notes which sound like: wheeta wheeta whee-tee-oh, for which a common mnemonic is “The red, the red T-shirt” or “Come to the woods or you won’t see me“. See what I mean? Anyway, we can all agree that “the call of these birds is a loud chip.” As with so many species!  

So here’s what to listen out for (recording: FLMNH). Suggestions for a suitable phrase welcome!

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If you come across a bird that looks like a hooded warbler, but is motionless and makes no sound unless you squeeze it, you may have found the subspecies Audubonus stuffii, which is found mainly in the Amazon and E. Bay regions.51idfxzal

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIVERSION

I haven’t had time to musically divert for a while. My title refers, of course, to the ‘psychedelic pop’ song by Donovan, released in the US in 1966 and the UK in early 1967. The theory is that the song relates to the supposed (but mythical) hallucinogenic high to be had from smoking dried banana skins. There are an explicit interpretation for the ‘electical banana’ which we need not go into in a family blog.  There was a rumour, now discredited, that Paul McCartney supplied the “quite rightly” in the chorus. Anyway, to chime in with the mood of the time, one of the first ‘coffee shops’ in Amsterdam was called Mellow Yellow. 

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RELATED POSTS

ABACO’S 37 WARBLER SPECIES

ABACO’S 5 PERMANENT RESIDENT WARBLERS

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Credits: Charmaine Albury for the photos and her warbling work on Man-o-War Cay; Luis Alvarez-Lugo (Wikipici); random open source material; FLMNH (birdsong); my iTunes