Swainson’s Warbler in Cape May!

My heart jumped when I read the NJ Rare Bird Alert text on Sunday morning April 29th. The Swainson’s Warbler had eluded me in Florida, two Carolinas…and now it was hundreds of miles north of where it was supposed to be…but only two hours from Philadelphia. By 2pm I was anxiously wandering the footpaths near the Cape May Point lighthouse hoping I had interpreted the e-bird coordinates correctly when I ran into my birding friend Win Shafer. Together we determined exactly where this small (5″) bird had been heard but basically not seen. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours standing in the bird-sound-less wind, we each headed home, very disappointed.

Overshot its normal range.

For the next two weeks I jealously read daily reports of birders hearing but rarely seeing this same singing male. This bird must have set up a breeding territory, otherwise it surely would have moved and continued its wayward migration. The Swainson’s Warbler is an olive-brown (i.e. drab) bird with a huge voice. Think Carolina Wren. When not singing from an exposed branch in breeding season, it spends most of its time skulking on the ground, hidden in dense thickets and “foraging on the ground looking for insects, spiders and caterpillars”. This guy  was particularly difficult to locate because it was situated deep in the tangles of private property.

Drab appearance but what a voice!

Monday May 14th I woke up very early and decided to try again. Fueled with WAWA coffee, I cruised to southern NJ and was planted in “the spot in Bob’s Woods” just before dawn. The 3:00 am wake-up was worth it because the bird was already belting out its distinctive song very LOUDLY. It actually wasn’t that close and, of course, it was hidden somewhere in the distant dim-lit stand of trees. I desperately wanted to see it as I don’t “count” heard-only birds on my life-list. I was alone. Should I play the bird’s song on my IPHONE to draw it closer? I thought of the occasional (?) golfer with a bad lie in the rough who moves the ball to ostensibly check its identity and replaces the ball in a better position. That’s called cheating. NO….using the phone would be unethical and kind of cheating. Not to mention it would be very disturbing to this persistent, lonely male who has already been exerting tremendous vocal energy for 15 days to impress (sadly) a non-existent female.

At 6:15 am I noticed a slight silhouetted movement twenty feet up and about 50 yards away. I was rewarded with a 10x binocular-aided visual of this Code 2 wood-warbler! It was singing from a branch in a tree whose leaves had not completely popped out. Eureka! I reached for my camera….oh, right. I didn’t think I had a prayer to photograph this bird so I left the camera and its telephoto lens at home. But I did take an IPHONE shot of the tree it occupied.

I promise a Swainson’s Warbler is in this tree!

You’ll just have to trust me. ABA Area species #772 and also the last of the 50 (excludes Mexican rarities) warbler species one can see in the Lower 48 states.


About George C. Wood

A birder since age ten, but not necessarily an avid "lister", I am closing in on 700 (*800!) species seen in North America.....hoping to capture each sighting with my camera.
This entry was posted in Quest for 700 (*800!). Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Swainson’s Warbler in Cape May!

  1. Dorothy Weisbord says:

    Congratulations George.. Took determination to spot Swainson’s Warbler,,I defiantly see it in the tree. D


  2. Tom Mason says:

    Great bird, George, and good stake-out work to boot!

  3. burkebiz says:

    Congrats GDub!! Warble Onward…!

    Sent from my iPhone – please excuse any typos.


  4. Fleur Thomas says:

    You must be closing in on most ever! Very impressed with your passion & commitment. See you next week,can’t wait! Xx

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Arlin says:

    Your descriptions of the quest are always the best part.
    Congratulations 🎉

  6. oysterrocks@aol.com says:

    Dude !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Way to go. Please keep me posted.

  7. Mike O says:

    Great story and bird George! I’m closing in on 500 and a Swainson’s would be amazing..

  8. Anne Wood says:

    I too was looking for pale eyebrows and a shivering bird in the detritus and leaf litter at my home but instead I found two toads, one small and one fat. Can I put it on your blog or mine?


  9. Joe Knowles says:

    I love the hunt, George — and congratulations! Here’s hoping he found his mate…..

  10. Anne Wood says:

    Just look at that tree!! There are at least 5 warbler silhouettes to be seen!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s