I was gazing down into the cool, drizzly garden this morning from our second-floor kitchen window because Charlie the Kitten had been machine-gunning. You know, the cat-behind-glass-talks-filth-to-prey noise. Every cat has a different twist on this, from a barely audible chattering to a highly vocalized riff of outrage. Charlie's is like Curly of the 3 Stooges doing "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk" in a whisper.
Sure enough, there were house sparrows everywhere out there--you know, those little brown stripey guys (males have black heads) who eat your fries in the McDonald's parking lot. These ubiquitous Eurotrash birds constitute 95% of my backyard bird feeder guests, and occasion within me a longrunning, low-grade spiritual battle: to come to terms with them, to love them even, because the gospels tell us to welcome and feed those who show up, not those on the A-list, even if cheap supermarket seed is up to $5 a bag.
And then this tiny little warbler...I said WARBLER...landed on the windowsill. Right in front of us. Gazed straight inside for a moment like a windowshopper, and flew off into my Bangladeshi neighbor's monster squash vine to forage in its enormous leaves. Charlie did a spit take, and I think I did too.
If you have never dabbled in bird-watching, trust me: This is like a paparazzi on his day off, walking into the supermarket to find Lindsey Lohan snorting coke with Brad Pitt in Aisle 7. Or a CIA agent tripping over Osama coming out of the men's room in the mall. It is so very much too good to be true. Bird-watchers swarm over obscure pockets of park and woods this time of year, peering upward at the migrating flocks until they get a cramp called "Warbler Neck," to spy these elusive featherballs as they flash through the foliage. And here was a warbler on the windowsill, probably snickering at Charlie and his Kitten Gatling Gun.
And then comes the Great Birder Question: What kind of warbler? The bird guides have pages and pages of them, and lots of them look really alike; my Peterson Field Guide devotes a whole page to "Confusing Fall Warblers." Little arrows point to helpful clues like eye rings, wing bars, head streaks, and buff patches on parts of birds that most of us never see unless we pick one up dead. (I'd like to ask some of these birds, "Pardon me, would you just turn around and let me see your rump?") Since warblers are fast flitters, I'm awed by the ace birders who can "make" things like eye rings; I'm lucky to come away with a keenly observed detail like, "Um, it was yellow."
Anyway, the markings of our brazen friend this morning were very plain--precisely the colors of a hard-boiled egg yolk, dull olive on top phasing into rich yellow underneath. Even eyeball-to-eyeball, I was too excited to notice an eye ring. At first, book in hand, I figured it was a female common yellowthroat (above), mostly because "common" sounds like something I would see. But Cornell's birding site describes the male yellowthroat as a "skulking masked warbler of wet thickets," and while it did rain and parts of my yard are thickety, we're no swamp--and no one could call this "skulking"! Instead, with a country twang of joy, I believe it to be a Nashville warbler, described by another birdwonk site as a "small, sprightly songbird of second-growth forests" who "can be seen feeding in mixed-species flocks in the fall...they search for food in the foliage, flicking their tails frequently...fairly low in trees or bushes." Bingo! (And no, they do not home their way down to the Grand Ol' Opry wearing spangled boots and fringed vests; they were just named by a guy who first saw them there.)
This isn't the first time that I've (maybe) identified a bird using behavioral profiling along with appearance. Plumage changes with the season, life phase, region; but we all of us show our true colors in how we get our grub and where we spend our time.
Photos: Top, Kevin T. Karlson, bottom, Greg Lavaty.