Occasionally, I become obsessed with a particular bird. For the past few years, I have gone out every April with the fervent desire to see a hooded warbler.
Why? They are beautiful. I have no other reason for this fascination. They’re not rare, but they are hard to photograph. They flit around, they’re tiny, and they reside in what is known as the shrub understory. The shrub understory consists of the low dense greenery of a disturbed or young forest. It is the snubbed stepchild of the mature old-growth forest. It is a place of chiggers, ticks and breeding mosquitoes. When you enter the shrub, you generally regret it, and are further punished by not being able to find your way out.
Fossicking around my house at midnight, I got the idea that the only real way to find this bird was to know everything about its habits. I stayed up late researching articles, and listening over and over again to the call of the hooded. It’s a feisty little tawee-tawee-tawee-tee-o. The part that stood out as I listened over and over again to the recording was that second to last syllable. The TEE is a sharp little whistle, unmistakable, and zippy. I was prepared.
The next morning, I thought about shrubby understory … where was the best (or worst) to be found? Of course, behind my house, almost at the creek, was an ideal spot. It’s wet and muddy. Odd vines reach out and grab you by the ankle. How perfect.
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Destination set, I walked out the door with the song of the hooded warbler playing in my head. By odd luck, I had to run a gauntlet of temptation to make it to the special location. The crows and the red-shouldered hawk were in a fury, mobbing the great horned owl that was hidden near the top of a pine. Just walk on … walk on.
The wood thrush was singing its exquisite fluty song with that last trailing vibrato that disappears like a vapor. Walk on … walk on.
Barely one hundred yards from my house, the true forest ends and the shrub begins. A tiny trail marks the divide. The sound hit my ears before reaching the divide, tawee-tawee-tawee-TEE-o.
Impossible, the bird I have searched every inch of prime bird real estate for is calling out his territory straight down the hill from my house?
The call came again and again, but no bird was in sight. Ah, but this is a skulking warbler of the UNDER story. A leaf wavered, a bit of yellow flashed by. Was it the hooded? The bird was on patrol, making the rounds of it territory.
By now, I had worked my way into the rough, hoping to find the bird in the tangle. Female hooded warblers stay quite close to the ground, but the male will come up to sing a little higher in the trees. For about half and hour I circled the area oh so slowly, finally coming to a halt when the calls stopped. There I stood, sure there was a warbler, but refusing to call it a hooded until I had proof.
Suddenly, a tiny bird shot out before me, working his way up a low tree, tail flicking, and calling with each small jump. The camera snapped into focus, and it was him. A small neon yellow face wrapped in a black balaclava was singing away in front of me. His back was deep olive, which accented its black and yellow head even more dramatically. Before me flitted an exquisite jewel of a bird.
After all these years of failing to locate the hooded warbler, he appeared only one hundred yards from my own back door.
Every naturalist has a home patch. It may be a backyard or a small parcel of woods, but it is known as clearly and comfortably as your own living room. Perhaps only your boots have created its meandering trail in the woods, but the path is dear and comfortable.
Bolin Creek Forest is not a great favorite of the birding set, but it is the place where I have watched the great horned owl pair raise their owlets, the place where the spotted salamanders gather on a rainy February night. It is home to a family of beavers. Pileated woodpeckers can be seen every day, and the local barred owl will hunt for crayfish right before your eyes. It is a fine home patch.
Mary Parker Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org