Sunday, October 30, 2011

Kirtland's Warbler: Rare Bird in Our Midst

It was just another Friday in the office for me on October 21, 2011… It was a beautiful *relatively* chilly day in South Florida, and all I wanted to do is play outside. During a break at work, I checked my email on my phone, as usual. But that day there was an unusual message. In a message in the Yahoo group of our local Audubon chapter, there was a posting about a siting of a Kirtland's Warbler in the Fort Lauderdale area the day before! A Kirtland's Warbler?!?! I couldn't believe what I had just read, but this isn't something someone would dare put out there if it weren't true. This bird is so rare already in its own small niche in Michigan. So to see it in South Florida was amazing. 

Kirtland's Warbler - Fort Lauderdale, FL

A very friendly Kirtland's Warbler

Seeing as I work in the area, I knew we had to take a chance. Immediately, after my initial shock, I texted Nick about the warbler. He was just as shocked as I was. I advised him to pack up our gear and meet me right after work so we could head down to the park where it was sited and take our chances. I was running out the door by 5 o'clock on the dot. It only took us about 25 minutes to get to the park, and we ran into a local birder who was just leaving. When we asked if he had found the Kirtland's, he said that he got tired of looking at it. We chuckled as we thought he was joking and probably didn't get to see it. But nope, he was serious. He said he had been there for 3 hours earlier and then he came back even later to get another look with his son.

Kirtland's Warbler enjoying the Florida Sun

Notice the distinctive patterns of the Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler gleaning insects

Needless to say, Nick and I were very excited. The posting about the warbler had advised that it was very cooperative, and the gentleman we ran into also said that this bird was one of the most "friendly" warblers he's seen. So, we definitely had our hopes up. And when we reached the area where the Kirtland's was spotted, another birder told us to look to look for a large warbler that pumps its tail like a Palm Warbler. In just minutes, we found the warbler. We watched it in awe and found all the rumors to be true - it was indeed a Kirtland's and it was one of the most cooperative warblers we've encountered. We were cautious not to bother it, but it didn't seem bothered at all. It just went about its business eating up all the berries and bugs it could gather. It seemed to pose for pictures, too. We were there from about 5:30pm to 7pm, and we could have stayed longer if it weren't getting dark and if it hadn't flew away to a different area.

Lovely Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler with a berry
We felt very lucky to have been able to see this bird, and to see it so well and for such a long time. It was truly one of the greatest sightings we've ever had. And these pics are some of the best warbler shots I've ever gotten, and it's fantastic that they are of such a rarity!

Kirtland's Warbler poses in the sunset

Notice the white crescents above & below eye

Nick's Thoughts:

I had already come to terms with the very realistic possibility that I might never see a Kirtland's Warbler. Their numbers are rebounding, but their breeding grounds are still so limited that one would have to take a special trip with the purpose of visiting them in a relatively small corner of Michigan. We've met someone recently who had done just that, and the state of concern over the Kirtland's population was such that she had apparently had to find a guided tour just for her to be able to search their nesting territory. What a bonus, then, that we had an hour and a half of uninterrupted quality time with this bird, with no danger of a tour leader trying to hurry us on. And better still, we only had a half-hour's drive to get there.

Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler showing off his round tummy full of food

Kudos to the person who found the warbler. Maureen's and my identification skills have improved pretty dramatically over the past three years, but I still don't think I would have the confidence to announce this super rarity to the birding world. With all of the gray and yellow warblers around, Kirtland's would be the last bird I would hazard, no matter how ill-fitting the species I might settle on. But having watched it carefully for so long, knowing full well what it was, I know now that there was only one possible identification. The Palm Warbler-like way it pumped its tail, being a bird that size, and with that particular style of patterning… it's unmistakable. It's unlikely that I'll have to apply my new schema any time soon, but if the opportunity ever presents itself, I'll be ready.

*Here is a video of the Kirtland's Warbler. PLEASE note that we are not the ones pishing. Another birder on the other side of the trees was pishing at another warbler, but that didn't make it right since we had an endangered bird in our midst. You'll even note me (Maureen) whispering "That's against ABA policy."*


  1. Good God...vagrant Kirtland's...congratulations. Sweet shots! Pictures of birds in fall plumage seem hard to come by.

  2. Congrats! Wonderful photos..great sighting. We were in Ohio this past may for the Biggest Week in American birding..and were hoping for a Kirtlands..but none..
    Maybe you can put some sticky tape on it so it will hang around till we get there in january..hee hee.

  3. Congrats on getting such great views of this wonderful warbler! We live in Michigan and have not seen one yet, but we hope to go up north to find one next year. ~Kim