The first-ever Wood Warbler found in the Lower 48

Wood Warbler in Los Angeles for Some Reason

On Saturday afternoon, I was watching my son compete in a rock climbing tournament when word went out amongst LA bird nerds that a Wood Warbler had been photographed earlier in the day. It was initially, and erroneously, ID’d as a Tennessee Warbler. This was an easy mistake to make, since Wood Warbler’s aren’t even in the Sibley or Nat’l Geographic Field Guides to the Birds of the United States. And it looks somewhat like a Tennessee Warbler. 

A Wood Warbler is an Old World leaf warbler in the family phylloscopidae (not to be confused with the general, uncapitalized New World “wood warblers” of the family parulidae). That is, it’s a European bird. Wikipedia incorrectly states that the “entire population winters in tropical Africa,” because this morning I saw one very far from tropical Africa. But very nearly the entire population undoubtedly does so. Indeed, it’s rare anywhere east of Moscow. A few had been seen in Alaska, but there had never been a Wood Warbler seen in the Lower 48 states. When I saw the text, I just happened to be 7 minutes away from the park where it had been spotted. But it was raining, and the sun was setting in 30 minutes. I dashed over anyway. But I, and the half dozen birders who had assembled, struck out. We left, crossing our fingers that the rain would keep the bird around until the morning.

I returned at 6:30am the next day, 25 minutes before sunrise and just in time for the last parking lot spot. There were at least 50 birders already there, many from beyond Los Angeles county. And they kept streaming in. Upon learning that Wood Warblers like the top of tall trees, I predicted the bird would be found in the cemetery next to the park (more tall trees). I was told the habitat wasn’t any good in the cemetery. After about an hour of standing around, the bird was seen….in a tall silk oak in the cemetery bordering the park. This caused a whole bunch of middle and late-middled aged white people to move at a speed few of them had reached on foot since the pandemic began.

The bird was frantic, but gave everyone unobstructed looks

What followed was stressful for some and ultimately delightful for all. The views of the bird were fleeting and obscured from the park. Standing in the cemetery would be much better, but it was a 10 minute walk to get to the other side of the barbed-wire fence separating the park and the cemetery. Many made the move to the cemetery, including me. Naturally, when we arrived in the cemetery, the bird flew across the street. It was working some willow trees, happily in a spot that put the sun at our backs. I could see it over the fence, and that’s when I took the photos you see here. Some couldn’t see over the fence easily, or couldn’t find the bird despite the constant stream of commentary (“moving left . . . near the light pole . . . above the no parking sign . . . just below to the red flowers”). Those birders who couldn’t stand it (they really, really wanted to use their $5,000 camera set-up to get point-blank photos of this super rarity) headed out of the cemetery around to the street or the park. Just then, the bird flew back to the cemetery trees. The chase went on over short distances, across fences, and amongst trees for over an hour.

The upshot of this active bird was that if you stayed in one spot long enough, the bird would come to you. It was, all things considered, wonderfully cooperative. And save a few birders who’d been to remote Alaskan islands, and those who’d been to Europe, it was a lifer for a large crowd. It stuck around all day, too. Who knows, maybe it’s going to winter here.

Gather birders, find good birds

The Wood Warbler wasn’t the only good bird seen that morning. While we all waited and checked out every little thing that moved in the trees, a couple of rare and unusual birds were seen: Townsend’s Solitaire and Plumbeous Vireo. While those of us in the cemetery walked around it, we found some more: Clay-colored Sparrow and Palm Warbler.  It was a classic illustration of the Patagonia Picnic Table effect: a rare bird brings birders, and more birders mean more discovered rarities.  For those who love exotics, the cemetery also had Pin-tailed Whydahs and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets and Scaly-breasted Munias moving around.

The fascinating upshot of this effect is that there are “rare” birds everywhere. Send 150 birders to a park and a cemetery, and we find all manner of unusual birds. They’d been there all along, of course. The birders don’t bring the birds. But they’re not so easy to find. The guy who found the Wood Warbler had a few quick looks at it in the park before he lost it. Had he been looking the other way, or god forbid at his phone, it may have never been detected. And based on the bird’s behavior today–it spent very, very little time in the park–it’s even more of a miracle he saw it in the first place. Which leads me to the humbling upshot of the effect: I’m not a good enough birder to find the rarities that are lurking everywhere I go. Few among us are, for sure. It haunts me to think how many vagrants I miss when I’m out with my binoculars. My ID skills have improved significantly, but I wonder if I’ll ever become more of a finder than a chaser.