By Bryan Stevens
Tennessee once represented the western frontier for many people in the United States, so the state acted as a beacon for naturalists wanting to make new discoveries. Some of those early naturalists, men such as Alexander Wilson, spent a lot of time in the Volunteer State.
Two of Wilson’s ornithological “discoveries” in Tennessee involved two species of warblers that were given names to honor the state and its capital after the birds were first observed in Tennessee and near Nashville.
Those birds were both members of one of my absolute favorite bird families — the warblers. It’s necessary to differentiate the New World wood-warblers from a grouping of birds in Europe, Asia and Australia that are also called warblers.
What is a warbler? The Wikipedia entry for these birds describes the New World warblers or wood-warblers as a group of small, often colorful, passerine birds that make up the family Parulidae and are restricted to the New World. They are not closely related to Old World warblers or Australian warblers.
That’s an adequate description, from a scientific standpoint. But warblers are magic. To do them justice, I’m compelled to wax a little more eloquent. They are a combination of color, movement and energy wrapped in a tiny bundle of feathers. Warblers are constantly on the go, hardly ever staying still for long.
The frenetic lifestyle of warblers challenges new birders. These birds don’t often stop and pose long enough for someone to get binoculars focused on them. One doesn’t exactly watch warblers. Following a warbler through tangled vines or the leafy tree canopy isn’t watching so much as anticipating. One gets a “feel” for where the warbler will appear next while tracking them through binoculars. By getting familiar with the way these avian sprites behave is the best way to learn how to observe these birds.
It’s not for nothing that some birders suffer from a malady, particular during the migration seasons, called “warbler neck.” The direct cause is the strain on the neck and back from always looking upward toward the treetops where many warblers like to stay.
Some, but not all, warblers are suffused with bright colors: yellows, oranges, blacks, blues and whites. A few — ovenbird, worm-eating warbler, Northern waterthrush — are various shades of brown. Some of my favorite warblers are the hooded warbler, Blackburnian warbler and black-throated blue warbler.
Then we have the warblers I mentioned earlier, which were discovered in the Volunteer State and to this day bear names honoring the state and its capital city. These two birds are the Tennessee warbler and the Nashville warbler.
The appearance of the Tennessee warbler varies greatly depending on the season. In autumn, most Tennessee warblers are greenish-yellow birds with whitish-gray underparts. Sometimes that green color ranges into vivid chartreuse territory.
In the spring, the basic green and white pattern remains evident, but both males and females sport a gray head and a black line that runs through the eye and along the side of the bird’s face. The plumage — at least in illustrations and photographs — is shown as more crisp and distinct with spring birds.
The pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson gave the Tennessee warbler its name, which, unfortunately, is not an accurate moniker. Don’t blame Wilson too harshly for the mistake. Even after he “discovered” the first Tennessee warblers back in 1811, it would be almost another century before scientists finally located the bird’s nesting grounds in Canada in 1901. The remote and inaccessible nature of the the region helped prolong this mystery about the Tennessee warbler’s life cycle.
Wilson was an interesting figure in the natural history of the United States. Born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1766. As a young man, he learned the trade of weaving. At the same time, he became interested in poetry and claimed inspiration in particular from the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
In 1794, after not succeeding at poetry or weaving, he departed Scotland for a new life in the United States of America. He settled with a nephew in Pennsylvania, but he found opportunities limited for poet-weavers.
To make a living, he took up teaching. He met the famous naturalist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson’s interest in ornithology and painting. These two passions took off for Wilson.
He made his life’s work the undertaking of publishing the nine-volume “American Ornithology” that featured his own illustrations of American birds. The work featured 268 species with 26 of them having never previously been described for science.
His fame as an ornithologist grew, and several species of birds were named in his honor, including the Wilson’s storm-petrel, Wilson’s plover, Wilson’s phalarope, Wilson’s snipe and Wilson’s warbler. Wilson’s work probably inspired John James Audubon’s own more extensive and famous collection depicting the birds of North America.
Every autumn I see some of the birds Wilson documented and painted as they stage their fall migration through the Volunteer State to reach destinations farther south.
Our capital city of Nashville also provides a common name to one of the warbler clan. The Nashville warbler is a small bird with a rounded head and short tail. The plumage of this warbler consists of yellow below and olive above. The birds have a white eye-ring that stands out against a gray head. The Nashville warbler also has a thin chestnut-brown crown patch, but a really exceptional look is required to see this feature. Most guides don’t mention that the Nashville warbler has a white patch of feathers surrounding the area where its legs join the body. This section of white is completely surrounded by yellow feathers. This is a helpful feature to know when trying to distinguish this warbler from some similar species.
Once again, Wilson bestowed a rather inaccurate name on this species, as the bird in question is only a visitor to Nashville and the surrounding territories during a limited window of time each year. The same is true of the Tennessee warbler. At best, these birds can only be found in the Volunteer State in April and May and again in September and October. Otherwise, Tennesseans would have to travel a good distance to see these birds at other times of the year.
Fortunately, these birds come to us. I’ve already seen the first Tennessee warblers for fall migration, but I’ve not been lucky enough this fall to get binoculars on a Nashville warbler — yet! There’s still time. Migration continues, so get outdoors and see what you can find.
To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at [email protected]