“Numbers aren’t everything,” said Neil. “We know we have a lot of prairie warblers, which is definitely a good thing, but we also want them to be producing offspring.”
The e-mail message was cryptic. “Meet us at 6am on Thursday morning. There’s an un-banded warbler hanging out on the preserve. Let’s try to catch him.”
True, I was headed up to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve to help Conservation Director Neil Gifford net and band prairie warblers. But they are tiny birds—maybe four and a half inches in length. He couldn’t possibly mean that we were going to be searching for a single warbler in a scrubby shrub-land three and a half times larger than Central Park…could he?
As it turned out, that’s exactly what he meant.
Setting the Scene
That morning, as we bushwhacked through the prickly and—much to my chagrin—tick-infested scrubland, Neil explained the details of our quest. Along with colleagues from the New York State Bird Conservation Area program (NYS BCA), he had already banded 38 male prairie warblers across the preserve.
The warbler we were searching for, known as Number 39, was the last on the list to capture—and he had staked out territory behind the office, near the road.
Prairie warblers, tail-wagging yellow birds with olive upperparts, are in serious decline across their range, due mostly to a loss of breeding habitat. The Albany Pine Bush, however, seems to support an abundant population. That’s good news because the warblers are also an indicator of high quality pine bush habitat. In other words, a healthy population of birds means a healthy ecosystem.
When we reached the location where the elusive warbler had last been sighted, we set up a net made of a fine, light-weight mesh material. Just behind it, on a small branch, Neil placed a decoy—once a white Styrofoam dove, now painted to resemble a warbler—and on the ground, an mp3 player loaded with prairie warbler songs.
“When we press play, the little guy will hear the recording and think there’s an intruder in his territory. He’ll fly down to investigate the decoy and should go right into the net,” Neil explained. It made perfect sense, but I still wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
In the Blink of an Eye
Neil hit “Play” and we quickly stepped back. The machine emitted a surprisingly realistic warbler call and within seconds came Number 39’s reply: a buzzy, rising “zee-zee-zee-zeeee.”
I had barely spotted him, a yellow dot perched on a branch 10 feet from the net, before he cocked his head to the side, gave the decoy a one-eyed once-over and swiftly swooped into the waiting cushion of the net.
I stepped up close, heart pounding. An amateur Prospect Park birder, I’ve seen warblers plenty of times—but the experience intensifies when you’re close enough to see your face reflected in a bird’s shiny, black eye.
Number 39 hung upside-down and perfectly still, though I imagine his heart was pitter-pattering just like mine. Neil gingerly grasped the bird in his hand, gently untangled him from the net, and we all sat down on the ground to take measurements.
Numbers Aren't Everything
As Neil carefully crimped the brightly-colored aluminum bands around the bird’s tiny legs, Tray Biasiolli from NYS BCA recorded the corresponding data in his notebook. The combination of bands and colors, unique to each bird, will help Neil and Tray track Number 39 and the other birds with binoculars throughout the season. Hopefully they’ll soon be spotted with mates and a nest full of offspring.
“Numbers aren’t everything,” said Neil. “We know we have a lot of prairie warblers, which is definitely a good thing, but we also want them to be producing offspring.” Things are further complicated by the pine bush’s location. A quick glance at this Google map will tell you why: the Albany Pine Bush might be prime prairie warbler habitat, but it’s smack in the middle of an densely populated urban area.
If the warbler mating season goes well, it could help prove that the urban pine bush is an important breeding area for the declining prairie warbler (and likely other shrubland birds, too). It could also show that, when taken collectively, the protection and management of the 20 or so pine barrens scattered across the Northeast is a good strategy for the long-term conservation of these important migratory birds.
When the time came to release the little bird, I silently wished him luck. Number 39 might have the odds stacked against him – so-so habitat in a patch of pine bush close to a highway—but I feel good about his chances. Plus, I’ve seen him up close and let me tell you, ladies, he’s a real looker.