2022-09-12 SPI on Monday

Mourning Warbler - Geothlypis philadelphia
This immature female Mourning Warbler on South Padre Island confused me for a while. I couldn’t quite make her fit the image of either the Nashville Warbler or a MacGillivray’s Warbler.
Mourning Warbler - Geothlypis philadelphia
Male Mourning Warblers are distinctive. With their slate-colored hoods and dark eyes and no eye-ring, they are not easily confused with other warbler species visiting South Padre Island.
Northern Parula - Setophaga americana
Northern Parulas seemed to enjoy spending their days at the Sheepshead Bird Sanctuary on South Padre Island.

September days on South Padre Island can be hot as hell, with enough humidity to keep me dripping in sweat from dawn to dusk, and through the night. It can wear me down, and if not for the amazing birds I get to meet, I’d sooner stay under cover and in an air-conditioned space. But then it would defeat the purpose of visiting south Texas. They say ‘it’s for the birds’. But that’s a good thing!

After several hours Monday morning, my endurance began fading just before the noon hour arrived. As I had done in the past few days, I started out after breakfast at the Sheepshead Bird Sanctuary, or Valley Land Trust, as it is sometimes called. I followed up the Sheepshead visit by driving to the SPI Convention Centre, and visiting the birds there, before my body told me to take a break. As my RV campsite was just across the road from the Convention Centre, I did not have to travel far to find a sanctuary of my own from the mid-day sun and the attendant tropical mugginess. After all, I had plenty of work to do from all the image gathering I’d done in the past days.

Later, after I cooled down and rested, and after making progress with the ever-present blog-work, I learned my friends Dan and Karen were driving down from their home in Harlingen to bird at the Convention Centre, and I joined them for the afternoon shift. The heat relents ever-so-slightly at day’s end, but even at night, the mercury can sustain temperatures at, or above the mid-80s, and with the still high humidity, it can take a toll on me. 

Recently, late in the afternoon, there have been surges of bird activity, and the pattern held up on this day too. One bird, in particular, caused a little extra excitement. The male Mourning Warbler is a distinctive bird. With its dark hood extending over his head and down to his shoulders, and a dull olive coat over most of the rest of its body. We all enjoyed its company during the moments he shared with us. We have been seeing Nashville Warblers since late last week, and they were still present on Monday. 

When faced with opportunities to capture photos of fast-moving warblers, the priority is to collect the best image possible. A careful real-time study of the subtle markings and other details is often impossible. For me, when faced with the choice of accurate identification, and capturing a quality image, my decision is obvious. I will shoot first and ask questions later! Such questions are more easily addressed when I’m reviewing the images that I’ve collected. And to paraphrase Don Schlitz’s classic song, I never count my money when I’m sitting at the table.

Deep under a shady canopy, there is a cave-like quality to the water feature at the Convention Centre, especially during the late afternoon. The dim lighting creates challenges, such as slow shutter speeds, which can contribute to blurry images and difficulty acquiring accurate focusing. Under these conditions, a bird I believed at the time was a Nashville Warbler paid us a visit. Later, when I reviewed my images, I saw this bird had a ‘broken’ ring around its eye; with an arc over the top, and another at the bottom of its eye. A Nashville Warbler has a nice round ring around its entire eye. A MacGillivray’s Warbler, on the other hand, has just such pale arcs around its eye. 

But there was a problem with this identification! Like the Mourning Warbler, the MacGillivray’s has a dark hood over its head that extends down its chest. Besides the broken eye-ring, the bird in question had a yellow patch under its throat. After checking my online and printed references, I found this bird was an immature female Mourning Warbler. There are few places where one has the chance to study and learn some of these subtle characteristics. South Padre Island during fall migration is one such place.

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