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Of Warbler Neck and other Seasonal Afflictions

By Andrew Melnykovych

If you spend any time reading about birding, you are sure to encounter rapturous descriptions of warblers during spring migration, when the males are in full breeding regalia. To wit: feathered jewels, fluttering avian baubles, tiny ornaments festooning the trees. You get the idea.

While the admiration is well deserved, the truth is that warblers are also a colossal pain in the neck.

Yellow Warbler, Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology
 

Because that is what you will have after a morning of trying to identify very small birds moving very quickly in the tops of very tall trees. There is even a birder term for it: warbler neck.

And when you’re not getting warbler neck looking into treetops, you are acquiring scratches, insect bites and other unpleasantries while crawling through the undergrowth trying to get a look at the warblers taunting you from the densest thickets.

For additional frustration, there are the various vireos, which in addition to posing many of the same physical challenges as warblers, also have a maddening tendency to resemble each other.

   

White Eyed Vireo vs. Philadelphia Vireo, Photos by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
 

Though not to the same degree as the group of small flycatchers often referred to as empids and often listed on checklists as Empid sp., which stands for “unidentified flycatcher species of the genus Empidonax,” but is really birder shorthand for “I have no idea which one it is.”

So why, exactly, do birders in the Louisville area await spring migration with the same eagerness that basketball fans look forward to March Madness?

It’s because the roughly two months (late March to late May) of peak spring migration bring the greatest variety of birds to our region, in the greatest numbers, and usually in breeding plumages, which are the easiest to identify. Combine that with mild weather, and you can understand why birders plan their lives around migration season.

Since the opening of a substantial portion of Beckley Creek Park in 2012, and particularly since 2013, when the Grand Allee section at Beckley Creek Park and Pope Lick Park both opened, the Parklands of Floyds Fork have become one of the prime spots in in the Louisville area for birders wanting to make the most of spring migration.

Pope Lick Park (known as Floyds Fork Park when it was operated by Jefferson County) had been a birding destination for many years. But The Parklands created access to areas that previously had seen few, if any, birders.

Many of those areas have proven to be among the best places to observe spring migration. The Grand Allee section offers a variety of habitats and already boasts a list of species that is longer than all but three other publicly accessible birding “hotspots” in Jefferson County, as tallied on the ebird.org website. Pope Lick Park is not far behind, and Turkey Run Park is already in the top 20 after being open only a little more than a year.

With its diversity of topography and habitat, Broad Run Park is sure to move up the list of best birding spots in a hurry. This will be the first year in which it is open for the entire spring migration, creating an opportunity for birders who want to be the first to find a species in a given location.

So, with all that acreage, what should you look for where?

Stream corridors are a good place to start. The Black Willow Trail in Beckley Creek is a great place to cover both streamside and edge habitats. You can see a nice variety of warblers, thrushes and other migrants. Ditto for the Boone Bottoms Trail in Turkey Run Park.

If you want a less neck-cramping look at warblers, tanagers and other species that like the upper branches of trees, you’ll have to get to ridgetops that give you something closer to an eye-level perspective, at least of the trees that aren’t on the tops of the ridges. The stretch of the Louisville Loop through Turkey Run Park between the Sky Dome and the Brown-Forman Silo offers easy walking and good views. For a more challenging hike, try the Paw-Paw Trail, which has similar topography.

Another good ridgetop location is the portion of the Coppiced Woods Trail that overlooks Floyds Fork in Beckley Creek Park. I haven’t yet birded any of the trails at Broad Run Park, but a number of them look promising and I will be checking them out this spring.

For sparrows and other birds of open country, the grasslands in the Grand Allee section and – not surprisingly – the Prairie Preserve section of Pope Lick Park are both very productive. Both are also good places to watch for hawks. The Sky Dome area at Turkey Run Park is also a prime hawk watching location.

 
Red-tailed Hawk, Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology
 

Don’t forget to check out ponds and wetlands. A number of relatively rare visitors (American Bittern, anyone?) have turned up in the permanent wetlands in the Grand Allee section at Beckley Creek Park.

If it’s a relatively wet spring, keep an eye out for birds hanging out in flooded fields that have moderately dense grassy vegetation. Because Jefferson County has relatively little habitat that is attractive to sandpipers and other shorebirds, these temporary wetlands can draw them in. In late April of 2015, as many as half a dozen species of shorebirds, along with a number of ducks, were seen in a single field next to the Louisville Loop in the Grand Allee.

Which just goes to show that, once migration gets going, there is no telling what might turn up where. It is definitely a time of year when you want to keep your eyes and ears open, and have those binoculars with you when you’re out and about.

Over the next few months, you’ll likely encounter birders throughout The Parklands, particularly in the early morning and evening hours. If you’re a novice, or simply have seen a bird you don’t recognize, don’t be afraid to ask for advice or assistance.

If you’d really like to experience spring migration in the company of experienced birders, Louisville’s Beckham Bird Club often conducts field trips in The Parklands. Non-members are welcome, and the veterans are always willing to assist beginners. A full schedule of trips can be found on the club’s website at http://www.beckhambirdclub.org/field-trips.html.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
Andrew Melnykovych began birding at age 10 and has birded seriously for about half the intervening 55 years. He is the field trip coordinator and vice president of the Beckham Bird Club.

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