December 29, 2022
Fan-tailed Warbler--0126
Fan-tailed Warbler--0126
Long time readers of this column will recall that I quit “listing” over a decade ago, but I still enjoy finding and photographing birds, especially uncommon ones or ones for which I would like better images.  It should come as no surprise, then, that when a Kentucky Warbler, a smashing little yellow bird with a black mask which I had only seen once before in Arizona, was discovered late on Wednesday, November 2 along a hiking trail forty-five minutes from my house, I determined I would go and try to photograph it.

Early reports said the bird was vocalizing repeatedly with a loud, easily recognizable chip note as it chased insects within a fifty yard area between the main trail and a stream, and many birders were finding it easily the first few days.  So, no hurry, right?  I had a few things I was working on and finally got to the site on Monday, November 7, day 6 for the warbler.  The bird’s behavior had changed dramatically.  It was now calling very infrequently and had become a real skulker, working slowly and silently like a wren beneath piles of leaf litter and tangles of blown down tree limbs.  I searched for five hours that morning, heard it once, and never caught even a glimpse.

Totally frustrated, I awoke Tuesday morning and immediately read the latest hotline.  A Fan-tailed Warbler had been discovered an hour ago in a recreation area twenty minutes from my house!  People were reporting in real time as they watched this warbler, a winter vagrant from south of our border, orders of magnitude rarer than the Kentucky, chasing insects on the ground in a Mesquite bosque the size of a basketball court.  Lesson learned, I was out the door in ten minutes.

Dozens of elated birders came and left while I sat on the ground in a relatively open area under the trees with two old birding friends as we took frame after frame of the frenetically feeding bird which foraged in a small loop and flipped past our position about every fifteen minutes.  After about an hour of this Jack guessed he had fired more than a thousand shots.  As Pierre chuckled and asked how long it would take to cull through that number, I checked the back of my camera and reported I had taken over 1300.

I’d estimate several hundred people saw this totally cooperative bird over the next three days, and tens of thousands of images were captured.  On Thursday it was gone!  What would have been the odds that this Fan-tailed Warbler, a mega rare vagrant would show up within a week after an unexpected but much more common Kentucky Warbler?  Or that it would be closer to my house?  Or that it would be so much more confiding?  Or even that I would learn from my Kentucky mistake and drop everything to go immediately?  This weeklong episode seemed a perfect microcosm of birding’s allure, birding’s magic, the frustrating dips and the incredible highs.

Here’s the story’s punchline.  The Kentucky Warbler was being seen for about three weeks after the initial discovery.  I went back for it four more times.  On November 10 I finally glimpsed it on the ground under a tangle of limbs, but got no photos.  On November 14 I found it in exactly the same place and got three terrible photos with parts of the bird obscured by leaves and twigs.  Two days later the same things happened.  Finally on November 21, a Monday, I spent four and a half hours and never saw or heard the bird, only later in the day to discover there had been an “event,” some kind of charity walk along the trail the day before.  Undoubtedly the bird had bailed out of the area after a disturbance of that magnitude.

They say you remember most the ones that got away, but Kentucky and Fan-tailed Warbler will forever be conjoined in my memory, the one that got away and the one my camera loved that I will probably never see again, the yin and yang as it were, of the birding cosmology.