The Warbler Train: Kirtland's to Golden-cheeks May 25—Jun 06, 2016

Posted by Michael O'Brien


Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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Inspired by our popular “Birding Across America by Train” tour, our first “Warbler Train” was a busy and fun-filled adventure. Connecting coastal migrant traps on the Great Lakes, young jack pine forests in central Michigan, swamps and pineywoods in East Texas, and oak-juniper woodlands and canyonlands on the Edward’s Plateau, this north-to-south route intersected a diverse array of species. As the tour title implies, we had a special emphasis on warblers and were rewarded with a whopping 30 species, including the very localized Kirtland’s and Golden-cheeked! The train itself was a relaxing step back in time as we watched the miles roll by. We enjoyed numerous historic highlights as we traversed the corn-belt region, rode along old Route 66, passed by the St. Louis Arch, and even passed by Dallas’s infamous Dealey Plaza, the site of JFK’s assassination. We also enjoyed some nice bird sightings from the train, including Anhinga, eight species of herons, Mississippi Kite, Swainson’s Hawk, Sandhill Crane, Crested Caracara, Loggerhead Shrike, and loads of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Western Kingbirds.

American Redstart

American Redstart— Photo: Michael O’Brien


Based out of Detroit, our first day was spent focusing on migrants at Ohio’s justifiably famous Magee Marsh. Upon stepping out of the vans we were instantly greeted by a male Blackburnian Warbler, arguably one of the most beautiful of all warblers! A stroll along the boardwalk resulted in a good mix of late-season migrants, including Mourning, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll, Canada, and Wilson’s warblers, plus Least and Yellow-bellied flycatchers, and lots of Warbling Vireos. Magee also produced nice views of Blanding’s Turtle, a real Midwest specialty. The next morning, before heading up to Grayling, we visited Park Lyndon, an oak woodland where we found several Cerulean Warblers (including a female on a nest!), as well as Blue-winged and Chestnut-sided warblers, and Eastern Towhee. We also found some adorable Black-capped Chickadee babies tucked into their nest! A nearby grassland site gave us superb views of the scarce Henslow’s Sparrow, as well as Sedge Wren and a pair of Sandhill Cranes tending their chick. 

Our time in Central Michigan began with the singular focus of seeing Kirtland’s Warbler, a rare but happily increasing species which nests only in this region. So we began our first morning there in a stand of young jack pines, where we quickly found a beautiful male Kirtland’s singing vigorously from the tops of pine and cherry saplings. We could hear other Kirtland’s in adjacent territories, but this one gave us such wonderful views that we never even looked for the others! As we continued to explore this region, we found many special birds such as Ruffed Grouse, Alder Flycatcher, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Purple Finch, and Evening Grosbeak. And of course, there were lots of warblers, including Golden-winged, Mourning, Cape May, and Canada! One evening, we went out at dusk and enjoyed displaying American Woodcocks, and also had nice looks at an Eastern Whip-poor-will. On our last morning in Michigan, we visited Tawas Point, on the shores of Lake Huron. A constant trickle of Blue Jays overhead indicated that migration was still going on, and it was impossible to ignore all the flashy Baltimore and Orchard orioles, which seemed to be singing from every treetop! As we explored this lively area, we came upon several interesting birds, including Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Hooded Warbler, and lots of American Redstarts. We were also surprised and excited to see our first Northern Mockingbird, a common bird farther south, but a rarity here!

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien


The weather forecast called for rain a good bit of our time in East Texas, and the forecast was accurate! As it turned out, we were able to dodge the rain much of the time, but often had to stay close to the vans just in case. Our first afternoon brought us to the Pleasant Hill Church area, where we enjoyed brief sunshine and only minor sprinkles of rain. At this primarily grassland site, we found an abundance of Dickcissels, as well as Northern Bobwhite, Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, Painted Bunting, and the first of many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers—a great start to our birding in Texas! The next morning, the radar showed we had only a narrow window of a few hours before heavy rains would catch up to us. We made the most of that time at Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where we found Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Chickadee, Prothonotary and Kentucky warblers, Northern Parula, and Summer Tanager. By the time we got to Caddo Lake State Park, heavy rains had begun, and much of our afternoon was a wash. Fortunately, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch in the quaint, historic town of Jefferson. As much as everyone enjoyed a fancy lunch at Austin Street Bistro, the big hit was next door at the Jefferson General Store, which felt like stepping back into the 1870s! Because rain had curtailed some of our birding plans, on our last morning in East Texas we made an optional early morning outing to Ore City to search for a few species we had missed the previous day. That outing proved well worth the early departure, with excellent views of both Louisiana Waterthrush and Swainson’s Warbler, both species we had missed earlier!

Golden-cheeked Warbler

Golden-cheeked Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien


The final leg of our journey took place in the Austin area, home to the VENT office and on the edge of Edward’s Plateau, where East meets West. A key focal point of our time here was Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, where dense oak-juniper woodlands are home to the very local Golden-cheeked Warbler. Upon arrival, we were not disappointed when we quickly found a singing male Golden-cheeked feeding its fledgling! Other nice birds in this area included Greater Roadrunner, Western Scrub-Jay, Cave Swallow, Black-crested Titmouse, Bewick’s Wren, and Rufous-crowned and Lark sparrows. Of course, no birding tour would be complete without a visit to a wastewater treatment facility (aka sewage pond), so we went to one of Austin’s most productive birding spots, Hornsby Bend. Although numbers of birds were not large, we saw several interesting species including Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Black-necked Stilt, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Wilson’s Phalarope, among other lingering migrant ducks and shorebirds. And to really cap off our trip, we ended our last evening on the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin, where we watched thousands of Brazilian Free-tailed Bats take off at dusk against a backdrop of skyscrapers—a spectacular sight!