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)

Suggested Topics
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor