Chapel Hill: Opinion

Warbler: Wings over water

Prothonotary Warbler sings by Morgan Creek.
Prothonotary Warbler sings by Morgan Creek. MARY SONIS

Tis the season. Warblers.

Breeding warblers in their dress plumage are heading north to their nesting grounds in the U.S. and Canada. It’s a spring occurrence that has birders out in droves to catch a glimpse of their favorite birds.

Observing these tiny gems is a difficult task. Many warblers forage for insects high in the canopy. So, you find yourself craning your neck to see a four-inch bird 80 to 100 feet up in the trees.

Experts can distinguish a particular call in seconds, but the view is often nothing more than a darkened speck fluttering amidst the rustling leaves. For those who list their finds, the call counts, the glimpse counts, but for a wildlife photographer, this entire process can make for a dreary morning.

I want to see a bird up close, near enough to look into their eyes and have them look back at me. It occurred to me, after years of disappointing failures that the birds can’t stay up in the clouds forever. What do warblers like? They like water, moving water; the quiet gurgling sound of water lightly passing over rocks in a stream draws warblers down from the canopy for drinks and baths.

Naturalists who live in desert climates will often add a water feature to their backyard with spectacular results, and any backyard will benefit from a water feature, but my own efforts are focused on locating the perfect natural source. These birds aren’t swimmers, so I look for the tiny stream … the negligible little seepage with a depth of about a half-inch, and plenty of rocks to interrupt the flow and create small bird sized pools.

It sounds simple, but the stream must have excellent vegetative cover as well. Should a hawk be on patrol, the bird needs dense underbrush close by for an immediate escape route.

Just as many people bathe either morning or night, the best times to observe these water destinations are morning or early evening. Another element that is a boon to any naturalist is the tendency for birds to want to associate with other birds. So if you are lucky enough to find one of these magic water holes, you’ll often see a wide variety of species enjoying the same exact spot.

You can sit or stand to observe, but at all costs remain as still as possible. If you’re still you become like a piece of furniture to the bird, move and you’re a predator. If you locate a really hot spot, you might see 10 or more species drop down to enjoy a cool drink and bath.

The last benefit of observing warblers at a water location is the pure joy of the birds. They fluff feathers, dunk their heads underwater, drink deeply, chatter to their mates, then dry and preen on a nearby sunny branch. For a wildlife photographer, it’s the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition – all sunlight, beauty, and glistening water.

Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at