What’s In a Name?

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A red eyed vireo briefly descends from the treetops to provide a fleeting glimpse of one of the most common, yet rarely seen birds, east of the Mississippi.

March is the last piece of evidence needed to prove winter has gone by. No matter the weather March brings, her legacy of cold and snow, as the step child of winter, is invalidated by “the first day of spring” conspicuously stamped twenty-one days into the month on just about every calendar printed.

Further visual proof needed to allay the fear that winter is here to stay, are the strands of migratory birds that precede peak migration in the next couple of months. Perfectly positioned between two rivers that lead to the sea and link to the main Atlantic flyway, Branchburg comes alive with colorful winged migrants. Some birds are just passing through while others stay to establish breeding territories.

You don’t really need to be a graduate ornithologist with the ability to differentiate a magnolia warbler from a black throated warbler to enjoy all the feathered gems that pass our way in spring.

During a recent snowfall the view of several brilliant red, resident cardinals, dodging among the tight branches of a nearby holly tree resplendent in dark green leaves and an overabundance of red berries was a sight to behold. The gently falling snow turned the scene into a living Christmas card.

Bird seed scattered on the ground immediately near the back glass sliding door was being appreciated by a flock of brave juncos. The scene was calm and predictable with an occasional song sparrow darting across the stage. Suddenly, standing on the ground next to the glass was what appeared to be a Parula warbler. I ran for the camera to no avail as the little bird disappeared quicker than a shooting star. It didn’t seem plausible that a warbler would be in this area so early but there it was. Looking through the, ‘guide to field identification, Birds of North America’, I reviewed the dazzling array of warblers each differentiated by plumage unique to adult and juvenile, male and female with a cautionary note on hybrid warblers and seasonal plumage. I guess it was a male Parula warbler.

The conflict of identification versus the excitement at seeing a strange colorful bird lingered for a moment until I realized it was the sight of the bird that provided the magic.

Knowledge of the scientific classification was irrelevant to the enjoyment of simply noticing something that appeared to be different and gave pause to a moment of thoughtfulness or beauty.

As an example, you might gaze upon a stunning portrait of another person or a dreamy sunset and immediately be drawn in even though you have no idea of the person’s name or the location of the sunset.

Beauty is its own reward and needs no further qualification.

Birds are creatures which reflect the colors that dripped from God’s palette of infinite hues used to paint the portrait of life. One could argue ‘colors’ have wings to spread nature’s beauty far and wide and taken together they are called, ‘birds’.

Soon the area will be crowded with migrating birds, the most colorful of which are the warblers. A walk along the river flyways while scanning the treetops will reveal small flocks of birds that look like no other you have ever seen. The bright plumed breeding males will be the first to arrive as they travel in the safety of numbers. It is hard to imagine that these diminutive delicate appearing birds migrate yearly to Central America, Mexico and the West Indies from New Jersey and points north. After arriving in breeding areas, the males separate to set up mating territories defended by trilling songs sung loud and often.

The colorful and numerous male warblers representing several species are spectacular to observe in their diversity of color swatches, masks, vests, necklaces and caps. Each color pattern represents a different species despite similar size and intermingling of flocks.

Even the most ‘nature oblivious’ and ‘nature neutral’ observers may have their heads compulsively turned by the accidental appearance of a flash of tropical color among the local treetops.

Perhaps a seed of curiosity may be sown, nurtured and cultivated from a brief encounter with a spring warbler. That dangling thread of gangly curiosity left by a Magnolia warbler or Yellowthroat can easily draw the observer into the world of nature to wander and wonder at the infinite complexities that bind all living things. To believe beauty is only skin deep and fleeting is to ignore the power, depth and satisfaction the beauty of nature has to offer. Asking nothing in return, not even requiring that you can differentiate a Rufous sided towhee from a Cape May warbler, beauty exists only to be appreciated.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.

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