Fall warblers. Ugh. I have hard enough time identifying tiny birds high in the canopy when they’re in their breeding plumage – normally I wouldn’t even try at this time of year. But in the last couple weeks I’ve started get into eBird, and if I’m planning on submitting an eBird checklist from my walk I feel obligated to do my absolute best to identify every bird I see, even if I give myself a bad case of warbler neck in the process. This afternoon I found myself squinting up into the canopy of a birch tree at a flock of active, noisy, but hopelessly nondescript warblers, determined to figure out what they were even if it meant standing there underneath them until dinner time.
That’s when I drew the warbler butt sketch in my notebook, deeply aware as I did so that I was crossing a new threshold of nerdiness.
See, I’ve started carrying my little journal around with me to keep track of what birds I see, and today I was finally inspired to try and make some notes on the birds I was looking at so that I could compare them to field guides when I got home and maybe figure out what they were. The problem was that I was looking up at the birds from underneath, and all I could really see clearly were the undersides of their little feathery butts, so… that is what I drew. Only someone who really, really loves birds spends time memorializing this part of their anatomy with paper and ink.
Every North American birder can relate to this, I’m sure. We have all spent far too much time squinting up into the canopy looking at the “vents” (to use the polite term) of warblers, waiting in vain for them to flip upside down and show us some actual field marks, right? Well, Roger Tory Peterson proved his genius yet again when he included in his field guide to North American warblers a plate specifically devoted to comparing the undersides of their tails. When I returned to my apartment I took my copy of this book down from the mantle and opened up to the appropriate page. The good news is, I was actually able to identify my nondescript warblers based on my sketch. SUCCESS! I HAVE ACHIEVED NEW HEIGHTS OF BIRDING AWESOMENESS! But the bad news is that they were Yellow-rumped Warblers, and I saw fall Yellow-rumped Warblers every day for months on end in Georgia and should have been able to identify these dirt-common birds without all this trouble.