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May is warbler watching month

By Walt Young

For the Mirror

May is a wonderous month for outdoor enthusiasts throughout Pennsylvania. I’ve often speculated that May could be three or four months long and it would still be impossible to take advantage of all the opportunities it has to offer.

The spring turkey season is well underway as legions of gobbler hunters take to the woods before dawn with the hope of calling a long-bearded tom into gun range. Anglers have an even wider range of choices with some of the best opportunities of the year for trout, pre-spawn bass, and crappies and other panfish.

But May offers other worthwhile diversions in addition to hunting or fishing. Dedicated mushroom hunters will prowl their secret places in search of delectable wild fungi. Wildflower fans will find an endless array of colorful spring blooms decorating the forests, fields and streambanks. Hikers and bikers will enjoy the springtime beauty of the many trails throughout the region. And birdwatchers will be scanning the trees to view the annual “warbler invasion.”

Warblers are sparrow-sized birds that migrate north each spring. The first of them usually reach Pennsylvania in late April, and their migrations continue through the month of May, with the peak of the invasion around the middle of the month. The males of many species of warblers are brightly colored, often with some vibrant yellow plumage, but other species are less conspicuous. Because most warblers tend to stay high in the trees, their presence often goes unnoticed to a casual observer even when there are lots of them around.

I have always enjoyed watching or photographing birds in any season of the year and first became interested in springtime warbler watching during an uneventful spring turkey season years ago. I’ve never considered myself much of turkey caller, and after a string of mornings without hearing as much as a single gobble, my expectations for bagging a bird were decidedly low. I also have a low threshold of boredom and was easily distracted by the many wonderful sights and sounds of the May woods. So faced with the prospect of uncooperative turkeys or just soaking in the ambiance, I easily yielded to temptation to sit back to enjoy the show around me.

Soon, I noticed a sharp-shinned hawk fly into a tall pine tree about 50 yards directly in front of my blind. Closer surveillance with my compact binoculars revealed a pair of those small hawks, which appeared to be engaged in a nest-building operation. I watched the sharpies for more than an hour as they made dozens of trips back and forth to the pine boughs that perfectly concealed their efforts there.

While observing the hawks, I also listened to a symphony of birdcalls coming from the trees above me. Scanning the treetops with my binoculars for a look at the birds doing the singing revealed several small birds that I couldn’t identify. I made some mental notes of their markings and coloration. Consulting my field guides when I returned home, I learned some of them were warblers.

While more than 20 species of warblers will stay in Pennsylvania to nest and spend the summer, others are only transients and will continue farther north into Canada to breed. During this springtime window of migration, avid birders will spend hours peering into the treetops with high-powered binoculars, hoping for glimpses of some of these colorful little travelers while they are here. A few species of warblers are similar in appearance and positively identifying them presents a challenge even for an expert birder. A quality pair of binoculars and a good field guide or two are essential gear for viewing the warbler invasion.

As fascinating as warbler watching can be, many other common birds are equally entertaining this time of year. Flashy red male cardinals with their distinctive mating calls seem to be everywhere right now. Male Baltimore orioles with their distinctive black and orange plumage are one of my personal favorites. These beautiful birds like to nest high in the sycamore trees along some of my favorite streams and rivers. Despite their bright coloration, orioles are masterful at staying hidden among the branches and foliage much of the time.

May is truly a great month for all who appreciate the outdoors. Whether you pursue turkeys with a shotgun or head to the water with a fishing rod or choose more passive forms of recreation, plenty of opportunities are present. And there are only 31 days to get them done.

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