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

A A A

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.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

For further reading

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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Offshore Wind Project Engineer

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Subsea Proposals Engineer

£50000 - £55000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Maintenance Agreement Manager – Subsea Cables

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Geotechnical Director of Engineering

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices