Doug Chickering of Groveland reminds us that ZZ Top sang “Every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp-dressed man” and tells us about his encounter with such a male: “This is the time; these are the days. All birding is good, all birding is an adventure, but the middle of May is the pinnacle of the experience. Finally, this year the weather has turned and our long agonizing wait for the passerines that epitomize the season is over. Here at last, a wave of warblers.
“Today Lois Cooper and I were in the S Curves at Plum Island. We had encountered Peter and Fay Vale who informed us that they had just seen two blackburnians [warblers] a few score yards north. That, of course got our attention. We moved up and, at the northern most large oak on the ocean side of the road, I pulled over and got out. Immediately I spotted a male blackburnian and motioned to Lois.
Before she could get to the tree, however, the blackburnian dropped into the heavy stuff and vanished. We waited. I got a few more glimpses and soon we were joined by a pair of photographers and then by Sam Miller. Suddenly the bird reappeared — this time on a lower branch, right at the edge of the road. It was only about 10 feet from us, and it perused and foraged in the same general area. I had already seen a nice blackburnian warbler at Hellcat last week. We eventually found another full male and then a female. The female was a little dull, but still nice, and the other male was beautiful.
This blackburnian before us was of a different, higher order. He foraged over our heads, glowed and shone, his marking crisp and pure. The black was a deep perfect black, as if these parts weren’t reflecting any light at all. The white markings were sharp and stood out in clear focused forms upon the black background. The fire throat was the deepest orange I had ever seen, like burning embers they seemed to glow even in the shade.
The bird moved in and out of the shadows and, as it did, the throat seemed to flash in the changing light. It was so dominant that the orange seemed to seep down into the lower breast, giving it a light orange wash. He was in his prime, dressed to shame a Victorian Hussar, and ready to set the ladies hearts to flutter. This blackburnian was indeed a sharpdressed man. Of course it drew a crowd, and before long, the laughs and murmurs of appreciation rippled through the gathering. This was a special bird indeed.
Later in the day, Lois and I were fortunate to watch a scarlet tanager in the bare sumacs of the Salisbury grove. At eye level perched and patient, he gave us looks that one can never expect, and we are filled with gratitude when it happens. He was almost as spectacular as the blackburnian. I have always maintained that if I do not see a blackburnian warbler and a scarlet tanager during a given year, my life has been diminished. This year my cup runneth over. Now Lois and I will try to see another before the season is over. I make no apologies for this kind of greed. Though most of the 20 or so species of warblers that migrate through our area during May are “sharp-dressed,” the blackburnian is the one that earns the most “wows” from its onlookers. It is always a hit when I can show a new birder their first blackburnian warbler.”
After reading Doug’s tale, I felt guilty that Margo and I had encountered a mini-fallout of blackburnian warblers along the Hellcat boardwalk just a few days prior. We easily saw eight of them, with six in a single tree. We sometimes don’t see that many in a season! They weren’t all “sharp dressed” males, but we were awestruck just the same. It was truly mesmerizing, and a moment that we will certainly remember.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.