Two black-throated green warblers who kindly posed for me in Milwaukee's Lake Park last weekend.
Two black-throated green warblers who kindly posed for me in Milwaukee's Lake Park last weekend.

Warbler time

I worked in a Downtown office building for many years. Times would come – I never kept track of the time of year – when we would find beautiful little birds dead on the sidewalk every day for a few weeks. I always wondered what was happening, but kept forgetting to look it up. What were those birds?

At the same time I would walk my dog in Lake Park and smile at the birders in their floppy khaki hats. I would squint up into the woods where they gathered, and I didn’t see anything. What did they see?

Then I learned the answer – to both questions. It was warbler time.

Late April and May in Wisconsin is warbler time. Many people experience warbler time mostly by finding dead birds, but warbler time is much more about life than about death – life and strength and persistence and the rhythm of seasons and climate.

Of the many species of wood warblers, more than 30 come through Wisconsin every spring, in huge numbers. They winter far south, usually in Mexico or Central America. They summer far north, usually in Canada. To find their way from one to the other, they follow long visible lines – like the coast of Lake Michigan. Luckily for us, they stop in Milwaukee on the way.

They are beautiful, beautiful little birds, brightly colored and patterned in many different ways. The Yellow Warbler like a fat little sunburst. The Cape May Warbler with jowls the color of a fresh egg yolk. The Black-Throated Green Warbler with its bright yellow cheeks. The American Redstart, black and orange like a tiny oriole. The Palm Warbler with its little brown hat. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler, all over the woods this spring, with its black Zorro mask and bright yellow patches.

How to find warblers

Surprisingly for anyone who has lived here awhile and never noticed them, warblers are easy to find. They almost never come to feeders, because their favorite food is live bugs. (Have you grumbled about those clouds of tiny bugs in the parks right now? Be grateful!) Warblers are in th…