Winter Warbler Wonder

by Cheryl Shank | Jan 1, 2023 | 0 comments

MacGillivray's Warbler
MacGillivray’s Warbler. Photo © Cheryl Shank.

I reread the checklist comments: “Potential MacGillivray’s or COWA/MOWA…Found and photographed better the next day. Confirmed MacGillivray’s.” The words sparkled with excitement. This was only the third confirmed record of a MacGillivray’s Warbler in Virginia, and the first in the Shenandoah Valley. I had seen one briefly in Colorado, and I wanted another look at this western beauty.

Monday evening, we traveled to Lake Shenandoah. The MacGillivray’s Warbler was not our only target; the day before, another birder had reported a Black Scoter. However, the scoter had departed, and the MacGillivray’s preferred mornings. We left without a glimpse of rarities.

A week later, we returned. Other birders informed us that the bird had disappeared ten minutes ago. Not even a chirp betrayed its presence. We took up our watch in the chilly December air, staring at an otherwise-monotonous patch of freeze-dried wildflowers. Song Sparrows chirped, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers chased, and a Blue Jay called. No MacGillivray’s. The minutes slipped by…

I reviewed the MacGillivray’s characteristics. With its gray hood, olive back, and yellow underside, it resembles the Mourning and Connecticut Warblers. Adult males are best distinguished by their facial patterns. The Mourning has no eye markings, the Connecticut has a complete white eye ring, and the MacGillivray’s has two white eye arcs. Distinctive calls also identify it: short chips, similar to the Northern Cardinal, but slightly sharper.

Suddenly, those chips began coming from the weeds. We snapped to attention, hoping for a good look. After chipping a while, he burst into sight. Several golden flutters, several chips, and…he disappeared. He remained hidden for several minutes, probably laughing at the people gazing into the rustling grasses.

Another brief flash of movement, and the warbler relocated to the opposite end of the patch. We dutifully followed, wondering whether we could expect a better look. The chips came infrequently, then stopped. We debated what to do next…

“There he goes!”

The MacGillivray’s Warbler swapped patch ends again. Half a dozen birders turned their heads, following the yellow fireball with their eyes. He landed near the edge of the grasses, giving us occasional glimpses. As we watched, the warbler took flight again. This time, he alighted in a nearby tree, giving us an excellent view.

For several beautiful moments, he posed for our binoculars and cameras. Then, in a final golden flash, he dropped back into the brush, chipping a farewell. After a final gaze into the obscuring grass, we left, thankful for the opportunity to see a MacGillivray’s Warbler twelve hundred miles out of range.

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