CAPE MAY WARBLERS + WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The history of ornithological classification and nomenclature is littered with peculiarities. The attractive migratory Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina is a very good example of premature evaluation.
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 across the yellow band to (mainly) the Bahamas.
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 ever specimen of the species was collected on Cape May NJ by George Ord during an exploratory 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 bodies, from large down to tiny, were after all the only irrefutable evidence of a new ‘find’ at that time. Detailed drawings could be made and descriptions composed. The later display of the specimens enabled the expansion of ornithological knowledge and methodology, and brought consequent renown. The great Audubon took the research method *treading very carefully here* rather further than one might be comfortable with today, with somewhat indiscriminate use of lead shot.
As Wilson later wrote (note the words ‘beautiful little species, ‘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.
The odd (indeed ‘Ord’) thing was that the first-ever specimen was a complete one-off in that location at that time. Not a single sighting of the species (named Sylvia maritima by Wilson) was reported on Cape May or in that area for more than a century. Then at last in 1920, another example was found. Nowadays the CMW is not in the least unusual in the location that gave it its name.
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.
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 lively conversation (though you might want to try it out) but considering the multitude of warbler species in existence, the CMW has the benefit of a rather special adaptation.
Tongue 2 (bottom left) is the CMW; No.5 is a bananaquit’s feathery tongue
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, which might help with ID. But then so do other warblers I’m afraid. Here’s something more practical – the tsi and the sip:
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).
- Audubon Cartoon: On the Wings of the World; Grolleau & Royer / Nobrow (highly recommended)
- Drawing, Nat Geo
- Range map, Allaboutbirds / Cornell
- 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