Finding a Kirtland’s Warbler

Perhaps the most exciting rarity to show up in Pennsylvania this spring was the Kirtland’s Warbler found my Mike Weible in Erie on May 22nd. This is one of perhaps 8 documented records for the state and, with all the photographers present, easily the best documented. Below is Mike’s story of finding the Kirtland’s Warbler.

Kirtland's Warbler sighting location

I left work on the afternoon of May 22nd to check a couple of places along Ore Dock Road on the south side of Erie Bay. This is a spot I check occasionally. I was predominantly looking for butterflies following some decent sightings made by Jerry McWilliams. As usual, when I bird this area, I checked a small sand spit and a marsh area for waders, terns, etc. with no luck. From there I drove very slowly along the railroad tracks checking flowers for butterflies. At the dead end I turned around and headed back. Again, I was inching along with an eye to the Bay side in search of butterflies. About 150 yards from my turn around, a small, gray backed warbler with white checks on the edge of its tail flew across the road in front of me. Initially, I thought it may be a Magnolia Warbler but I stopped and looked anyway. The bird landed on an open branch of a Staghorn Sumac and pumped its tail. Immediately, I recognized the bird as a Kirtland’s Warbler.

It’s somewhat difficult to put into words the rush of excitement that came over me. I grabbed my camera and jumped from my truck. My camera was set on auto focus and I couldn’t get a shot of the bird. I switched to manual to focus and the bird disappeared. My heart sank and a twinge of doubt momentarily crept in. I quickly phoned Jerry to request his assistance in recovering the bird; something that often doesn’t happen along the lake shore in Erie. I parked my truck and slowly began to walk the road back to my initial spot of sighting.

Kirtland's Warbler - photo by Mike Weible (click to enlarge)

As I neared the sumac, I had a bird jump into some low brush just above the ground. It was the Kirtland’s. I then went to work with my camera. Every single one of my initial shots was poor as I was shaking and too stunned to make the appropriate settings on my camera. A Kirtland’s Warbler was my number 1 most wanted found bird in the state so my mind was not on taking stunning photos. I just wanted proof. I called Jerry to get his location after I had some ID shots and he happened to be parking by my truck. I pleaded with him to race to me in his car and he did so very admirably.

Kirtland's Warbler - photo by Mike Weible

Jerry jumped from his car while I was still shooting away and was able to get on the bird after I pointed out some quick references. He was nearly as excited as me. It was a state bird for him too. The photos I have included have not been edited. They are as I took them and not that great. The area the bird was found in was dominated in the canopy by Cottonwood trees. The mid level was mostly Sumac and the understory predominantly Honeysuckle. As we watched the bird, it fed mostly near the tops of the honeysuckle and lower portions of the sumac. The bird then flew across the road and tracks and disappeared along the lake shore. Dave Wilton later recovered the bird feeding at roughly the same height for much of the time it was observed. I am delighted that others were able to share in such a lucky find on my part.

Kirtland's Warbler - photo by Mike Weible