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)

ALL THINGS BRIGHT… CHEERFUL GARDEN BIRDS AT DELPHI, ABACO


ALL THINGS BRIGHT… CHEERFUL GARDEN BIRDS AT DELPHI, ABACO

It’s not necessary to prowl around the coppice or lurk in the pine forest to see beautiful birds. They are on the doorstep, sometimes literally. Especially if there are full seed feeders and hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water for the Cuban Emeralds, Bahama Woodstars and other birds with pointy beaks (Bananaquits, for example). Here are are a few from the gardens immediately around the Delphi Club.

PAINTED BUNTINGS (f & m)DSC_0204 copy - Version 2

PAINTED BUNTING (m) WITH BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS (m & f)Painted Bunting SW - V2 jpg

PAINTED BUNTING (f)DSC_0168 copy

WESTERN SPINDALIS (m)Western Spindalis edit DSC_0098

THICK-BILLED VIREO (m)TBV edit

This is a TBV recording made with my iPhone.

For details how to record birds (or indeed animals. Or people) with a smart phone and embed the results as an mp3, CLICK HERE 

CUBAN EMERALD HUMMINGBIRD (m)Cuban Emerald DSC_0095

A PAIR OF CAPE MAY WARBLERS

These little birds are autumn / winter visitors, though I have seen one at Delphi in June – it must have like it there and decided to stay on. Strangely, though originally named for one found on Cape May in the c19, there wasn’t another one recorded there for another 100 years…

CMW 33 copy 2CMW 2 copy 2

ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK (m)Rose-breasted Grosbeak

INDIGO BUNTING (m)Indigo Bunting

BANANAQUIT (m)DSC_0078

THE DELPHI CLUB, ABACOThe Delphi Club, Abaco, BahamasCredits: Mainly Sandy Walker; a couple from Peter Mantle; DCB by RH

ABACO WARBLER CHALLENGE: CAPE MAY WARBLER IDENTIFIED


WARBLER IDENTIFICATION – A LIGHT-HEARTED CHALLENGE

SPECIES ID NOW SOLVED! CUT TO THE CHASE BENEATH THE PHOTOS FOR DETAILS. A LATE ENTRY NOW DISPUTES THE GENDER ID, SO THE SEX CHALLENGE IS REOPENED, SO TO SPEAK

I have previously posted aids to WARBLER ID (1); WARBLER ID (2), a pitfall-fraught area that continues to baffle me despite books, online resources, futile stabs in the dark etc. For each species the male differs from the female, and both differ from juvenile / maturing birds. And this all depends to some extent on the season. Here’s a speckled warbler photographed recently at the Delphi Club, Abaco, for which there are various candidates ranging from the distinctly possible to the frankly completely-unlikely-but-astounding-if-it-turned-out-to-be-true Kirtland’s Warbler. These are seen and positively identified vanishingly rarely on Abaco – maybe one or two a year, and invariably in winter. But what if one decided to stay behind for the summer… And to those who say “Prairie, dimwit”, I reply “…but their speckles don’t cover their entire fronts”.

I’m throwing this open, because although I have a view I’d like to see what others come up with. Craig? Avian101? Avian3? Margaret H? Other birding followers? Are you out there? Leave a comment (see small-print blurb at the bottom of the post) or email me at rollingharbour.delphi@gmail.com The bird was a bit reluctant to be photographed, but I managed to get a side view, a ‘full-frontal’ and a head shot. Any ideas?

UPDATE Thanks to all who came up with suggestions – it’s interesting how opinion on warbler species varies, even with quite clear close-ups to judge from. The first past the post is… Dr Elwood D Bracey (Fl), to whom many thanks. It’s a female CAPE MAY WARBLER Dendroica tigrina. The runner-up is (amazingly) myself – I had it down for a Cape May juvenile, because I thought it looked a bit on the fluffy side… Also, its eye-patches (photo 3) are grey rather than brown, and I took their colouring to be a work in progress. There’ll be some more ID queries from our recent batch of Abaco photos – not just birds, but flowers & shells as well. All contributions will be welcome…

Oh no! What’s happening here? A late challenge has come in from Margaret H (see comments), who contends that the clearly shown patch on the bird’s cheek indicates that it is a male, not a female, Cape May. So the challenge was ended and the award given prematurely… The species is now definite, but the gender ID remains unresolved…

I’ve now heard from Alex Hughes, who writes “[I am] one of Caroline Stahala’s field techs on the parrot project this summer.  She forwarded me the photos of the warbler taken recently on Abaco.  The photos I saw are of a female Cape May Warbler, which is a great find in June!  She is certainly not going to make it to her breeding grounds, unfortunately, but still fascinating to see a boreal forest bird in the Bahamas during summer.

In a follow-up, Alex adds “I’d be very surprised if this was a male bird, due to the plumage lined up with the time of year.  This year’s juvenile birds are not big enough to make the flight south from breeding grounds yet, and wouldn’t anyways if they could.  Therefore, it would have to be adult non-breeding plumage if it were a male, also meaning this bird already molted from alternate plumage from spring, and flew south.  This seems far more unlikely to me than a female who simply didn’t make the flight, probably due to some handicap.  Either way, very cool!”

So I think that wraps it up. A female Cape May, in the right place at the wrong time. How lucky to have got close to one in the off-season. It just goes to show, eager Kirtland hunters, that any of the migratory warbler species might choose to stay behind for the summer…

CORNELL LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY IMAGE & BLURB

“The Cape May Warbler breeds across the boreal forest of Canada and the northern United States, where the fortunes of its populations are largely tied to the availability of spruce budworms, its preferred food. Striking in appearance but poorly understood, the species spends its winters in the West Indies, collecting nectar with its unique curled, semitubular tongue”.

It is presumably using its ‘unique… tongue’ in Photo 2, inconveniently concealed by foliage so we will never know

(RH COMMENT My one obviously liked the Delphi Club – and its feeders – so much that it decided to stay for the summer…)

(Credit: Steve Pelikan for Xeno-Canto)

CAPE MAY WARBLER RANGE MAP (Wiki) (left)

As a warbler-muddler, I am interested to see how extremely selective this species is in its preferred summer and winter latitudes. The banding is very distinct. Are they never tempted by New York? Have they never tried Disneyland?

CORNELL LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY RANGE MAP (below)

The more sophisticated range map below shows the migration areas between the summer breeding and winter non-breeding areas. It looks as though a Cape May warbler on Abaco in June is an unexpected sighting.