Published March 02. 2012 4:00AM
In March my attention shifts from snowy owls and winter finch to early spring migrants. It is an inspiring time of year when birding brings me down muddy trails and over melting snow in search of birds not seen since the warm days of early autumn.
Although severe weather may begin March, it is the longer day that holds the bright promise of tomorrow. The excitement of light is something each of us senses. The wild birds are acutely sensitive to even the slightest increase in light intensity, and their hormonal response to it helps to make the spring season lively. Changes in light prompt chickadees, titmice and nuthatches to disband from their winter flocks. It also stimulates eager migrants to fly north.
Small wonder, a morning hike along Colchester's Airline Trail revealed an Eastern phoebe before the first day of March. At dusk, in the wet soggy meadows, an American woodcock was busy performing his courtship display, and in the wetland marshes red-winged blackbirds congregated at noon.
Huge flocks of grackles are now arriving from the south, too. They sound like old rusty hinges and are a welcome sure sign of warmer days. Not surprisingly, this winter vast nomadic flocks of grackles remained in New England. Robins are turning up all over the neighborhood. In just a week or two their songs will fill the morning air.
Yet, of all these birds, it is the little known pine warbler that often returns first. A capable seed eater, this tiny warbler ventures back north as early as February. It is nothing short of amazing to see a warbler in Connecticut this early. The pine warbler is already nesting when the other warblers are just arriving. They are the only warbler whose winter range remains mostly within the United Sates, so their migration is short.
Easily overlooked, pine warblers move about much like nuthatches and brown creepers. They habitually creep up tree trunks and around limbs, often upside-down. "Pine warbler" is an apropos moniker because you never see them on deciduous trees. They spend most of their lives high up in the canopy of pine groves feeding on insects.
The exception occurs when the tiny warbler decides to visit a feeder. This usually happens during late winter when the birds are arriving exhausted from migration. They are attracted to the high energy suet but will not pass up an offering of seed either.
Although, the pine warbler behaves much like the nuthatch, the birds are most often incorrectly identified as goldfinch. Both species are similar in color and have white wing bars, but the pine warbler has a streamline beak typical of insectivores, and the goldfinch has a conical beak for working seed shells.
Since the pine warbler can eat both seeds and insects they may be spotted at either suet or seed feeders. Thistle, corn meal and wild-bird seed mixes are more likely to entice these tiny birds rather than the larger shelled seeds.
Whether or not you see a pine warbler, the increasing light and the return of a few migratory birds makes March an exciting time to be a birder.
Robert Tougias is a Colchester-based birding author and is available for presentations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.