Sometimes I worry about what it’s going to feel like to see the first warbler of the season. Will it be as exciting as last year? Will the colors be as bright as I remember them? Will the enterprise of trying to spot the flitting, anxious, tiny birds that refuse to sit still feel as rewarding? Will I be able to ID anything other than a yellow warbler or a black and white? Will their songs all sound the same? Might something like this get old one day?
And then I saw my first yellow-rumped warbler this weekend, and all my doubts dissipated. The bird was perfect, even more stunning than I remembered, with just enough flashes of yellow on its face, sides and rump to illuminate the trees around him, and to remind me that spring has finally arrived. Miraculously, I managed to fix my binoculars on the bird and followed it for about thirty seconds: in one tree and out the other, bursting with energy, fluttering up, then swinging down low, and up, up, up again until my neck could take it no longer.
I can’t say I look forward to seasonal “warbler neck,” but the familiar pain now registers as a strange badge of honor rather than a real ache. Yes, this is something I will endure. And yes, it’s entirely worth it! I’ve always mocked my husband’s sports-related injuries, telling him he should “know better” and asking him whether it could possibly be “worth the pain” and here I am, craning my neck willingly to catch another glimpse of the yellow-rumped avian beauty, to see it tilt its head to regale us with its trilling song before darting off into the next branch. I do all of this knowing full well that I will pay a price the following day.
It’s not that the yellow-rumped is a particularly rare or challenging bird to ID, but in spite of that, I can’t stop grinning. It’s my first of the season.
This migration season, I’m trying something different. I have begun volunteering at the Tommy Thompson Bird Research Station (TTBRS) on the Leslie Spit in Toronto. Ever since visiting the banding station at Ruthven Park, where I held a tufted titmouse for the first time and (mostly) overcame my fear of touching animals, I’ve wanted to have more exposure to birds, to see the detail on their plumage, and to gain a greater understanding of their world up-close. Though I’m mainly observing for now, the experience is changing the way I look at birds and also helping me become a more proficient birder. (And do I ever have a lot to learn!)
There’s something magical about waking up with the birds and watching the sunrise over Toronto. There’s also something humbling and wonderful about being surrounded by such knowledgeable, talented and generous bird researchers and volunteers who answer my every question (no matter how ignorant) and let me participate in their fascinating migration monitoring project.
One of the volunteers summed up his feelings about Tommy Thompson Park early in the morning during migration season: “It’s like being in a candy store!” And that’s exactly how I felt.
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She's a long-time contributor to ON Nature magazine and our blog.