Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Warbling wonders in need of a poet


Strange to find a great natural event which has never had its due. Most of the exceptional happenings in nature, from the return of the salmon to the song of the nightingale, from the march of the penguins to the hunt of the orcas, have by now been appropriately appreciated and praised, versified, sung about, photographed, made into TV documentaries and commented upon in hushed tones by David Attenborough. But there is one extraordinary natural phenomenon which it seems to me has never been described or recognised in the terms which it deserves, and that is the spring return of the warblers to America's forests and woodlands.

In Britain we enjoy our own warbler species – we have 14 of them, from the chiffchaff with its simple metronomic two-note call, one of the first signals that winter is over, to the willow warbler with a song that is a silvery descending cascade. But on the whole, apart from the wood warbler, which is a winning combination of fresh green, primrose yellow and pure white, you wouldn't say they were much to look at, and indeed the garden warbler, with a plumage that might be made of brown paper, is probably the plainest-looking British bird, distinguished by its lack of any distinguishing mark whatsoever.

America's warbler species, which are not related to the Old World ones, but have co-evolved to occupy a similar ecological niche to our birds as small insect-eaters in the treetops, are something again. There are 53 of them, and if you take them all together, and think of them as a sort of great meta-species, their coming represents what is most exceptional, of all that is exceptional, about America's spring, just as the burnished foliage of New England is the highlight of America's autumn; for the male birds in their springtime breeding plumage display a range of flamboyant colour and patterning which is quite unparalleled. It can often be seen as variations on a theme, such as a black throat with this, or a striped back with that. The colours of this and that are intense – rufous, gold, black, sky blue, olive green, dove grey, flaming orange, navy, white, chestnut – juxtaposed in plumage arrangements which are often startling, and make a dazzling feast for the eyes; these are the butterflies of the bird world.

To give a single detailed example, the magnolia warbler, the breeding springtime male, has a grey crown, a white eyebrow, black cheeks and a yellow throat – that's just his head – and then a black back, white wing-patches and a yellow belly marked with thick black stripes. And he's far from the most spectacular. Wait until you see the golden-winged warbler, or the black-throated blue warbler, or especially the blackburnian warbler, which underneath its wings of black and white has a throat of such powerful, passionate orange that American birders have nicknamed it the firethroat.

I have spent the last week in the US trying (among other things) to glimpse these brilliant creatures, partly in Washington's Rock Creek Park, a tract of ancient woodland preserved close to the heart of the US capital, and partly, early yesterday morning, in Central Park, New York, where they also can be found, passing through on their way to breed in the boreal forests of the north. Now is the prime time to see them, the peak of their migration period (they winter in tropical forests of the West Indies and Central America).

So far I've managed to see nine: the magnolia, the chestnut-sided warbler, the Canada warbler, the black-and-white warbler, the common yellowthroat, the parula, the American redstart, the ovenbird and the northern waterthrush (all warblers, despite their names.) It took effort, as they're hard to see, flitting about in the high foliage – apart from the last two, which are ground-dwelling – but it was worth it; every one was a thrill.

If you take them all together, there is no doubt that their arrival, this pageant of living colour, represents one of the most remarkable markings of the springtime to be encountered anywhere, yet to a European observer there is indeed a sense that it has never had its due. You feel that America's warblers deserve a celebratory literary tradition, as bringers of the spring, to compare with the swallow, the nightingale or the cuckoo in Europe: Ode To The Warblers, Hymn To The Warblers, Waiting For The Warblers. There needs to be a Keats of the warblers; but they've never had their poet. (Robert Frost wrote about the ovenbird, but not in the way I mean.) Perhaps in the ranks of US birders, who do love them and appreciate them fully, even now an unforgettable ode is starting to generate: may the Muse of small songbirds fly down and inspire.

Can there be life in this white wilderness?

I have seen the wilderness, and it left me stunned. Coming to America last Saturday, the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland was disrupting air traffic over the Atlantic, so my Washington-bound jet flew in a great northern parabola along the east coast of Greenland and then right across the Greenland ice sheet itself. For hundreds and hundreds of miles there was nothing below but snow and ice and white mountain peaks picked out in blue shadow by the lowering sun, with no houses, no roads, in fact no human traces whatsoever and not a scrap of vegetation. I gazed down on it from 36,000ft and wondered if there could be any life at all in that icing-smooth empty vastness. Maybe a gyr falcon, I thought, the majestic white-feathered Arctic bird of prey. But what would it feed on? For, what would what it fed on, feed on? The endless white desert was terrifying, but it was also wonderful in its inviolate purity.

For further reading

'The Sibley Guide to Birds', by David Allen Sibley (Alfred A Knopf, New York)

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