50 Years of Warbler Springs – Have they really changed?

Recently I was looking at my own notes and thinking back to just last year.  In 2010, we had Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in our yard almost the entire month of May, 2011 – none (Edit: After I started writing this, the very next day we had several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in the year).  In 2010 we had Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Parula, Cape May Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, in 2011 I had a single Black-throated Green in late April and a lone Black-throated Blue in early May (Edit:  You guessed it, a Magnolia Warbler was spotted after I started writing this!).  No thrushes of any kind, we used to hear at least Wood Thrush from some of the near by woodsy areas at dawn and dusk, but not this year.

So this all got me thinking about past springs in Eastern New York.  So I decided to look up the Spring reports from the New York Ornithological Associations, Kingbird archives from 1955, 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2005 to see what, if any changes in spring migration has happened.

1955 (KB: 1955 V5 N2)

The regional editor (James K. Meritt) mentioned that the weather was 4.2 degree above normal, with little rainfall until the end of May (when most migration is over).  The editor mentioned a general lack of migrants, especially warblers, the exception was White-Crowned Sparrow.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler were the only 2 warblers reported in April, but on May 1st of that year, Black-and-White Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Blackburnian Warbler, Nashville Warbler followed on May 3 and Golden-winged, Magnolia, Cape May and Chestnut-Sided Warbler arrived on May 7.  Northern Parula, Canada Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush (late) and Black-throated Blue Warbler (late) arrived on May 8.  Worm-Eating Warbler arrived on May 14 and a Yellow-breasted Chat (!) was seen on May 22.

Of note, Common Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak and Red Crossbill were all reported well into April and Evening Grosbeak was considered a common bird with flocks of up to 600 birds still reported. (Where are they now?)

1965 (KB: 1965 V13 N3)

Fast forwarding a decade, the Beatles were popular, the Vietnam War was about to begin, Sandy Koufax was striking out hitters and throwing no-hitters and Spring migration was unimpressive again.

This time the editor (Peter P. Wickham) echoed very much the same report of Meritt 10 years earlier.  April was about 4 degrees below normal and May was only about 1.7 above normal, but once again an extended dry and warm spell in late April through mid-May meant many migrants simply passed over Eastern New York.

Its interesting to note in this report how alarmed the editor was (and rightly so), he comments on the steep decline of Owls and all raptors both as breeders and migrants, but also noticed steep declines in rails, herons, bitterns and Pied-billed Grebe.  Of course we now know that many of these species were affected by DDT and in some cases would take almost another 50 years for these species to even come close their numbers prior to mid 1960’s.

Black-and-White Warbler (Apr 25), Worm-Eating Warbler (May 5), Golden-winged Warbler (May 6), Blue-winged Warbler* (May 4), Tennessee Warbler (May 10-19 all passed through), Nashville Warbler (Apr 27, early), Northern Parula (May 3, editor noted “more than usual”), Yellow Warbler* (Apr 28, likely ignored in the 1955 report because of its ‘common’ status), Magnolia Warbler (May 10-18, very similar to Tennessee), Cape May Warbler (May 1, early), Black-throated Blue Warbler (May 2), Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Apr 10), Black-throated Green Warbler (May 2, late), Blackburnian Warbler (May 2), Chestnut-sided Warbler (May 3), Bay-breasted Warbler* (May 8), Blackpoll Warbler* (May 13), Pine Warbler* (Apr 25, another one likely overlooked in the 1955 report, but editor only noted 2 sightings and considered both migrants, while a report from Northern Warren County in late May were considered breeders), Prairie Warbler* (May 6, again overlooked in the 1955 report), Palm Warbler* (Apr 18, editor noted more reports than usual),  Ovenbird* (May 2, very much overlooked in the 1955 report), Northern Waterthrush (May 6), Louisiana Waterthrush (Apr 25), KENTUCKY WARBLER (May 15-17, near Ghent, Columbia County.  Editor noted it as now “annual” in that area), Mourning Warbler* (May 15, only reported from nesting areas which is usual), Common Yellowthroat* (May 2, another very common warbler left off the 1955 report), Yellow-breasted Chat (May 10, this species will become nearly extirpated from the region soon along with Loggerhead Shrike and Barn Owl), Wilson’s Warbler* (May 13, can be tough to find), Canada Warbler (May 2, editor noted “rather few”), American Redstart* (May 5, yet another in a long list of common warblers, left out of the 1955 report).

*Birds reported in 1965 Spring Report that were not in the 1955 report.

1975 (KB: 1975 v25 n3)

The region 8 editor was Gladys Snell, who reported it was one of the coldest April’s on record in April, with it nearly 6 degrees colder than average and temperatures in the mid 20’s as late as April 27.  May was near normal both in terms of temperature and precipitation.  The 1970’s show a marked increase in the organization and abilities of your average bird watcher, especially compared to just 20 years earlier.  As a result, we likely have a better record of when species arrived as more people in field = more birds being spotted.  No comments were really made on whether it was a good or bad spring migration, although a team banding at Vischer Ferry in southern Saratoga County reported “average” numbers.

Black-and-white Warbler (May 9, late), PROTHONOTARY WARBLER# (May 17, with a report of a whopping 3 at the Alcove Reservoir in Albany County, clearly and spring overshoot), Worm-Eating Warbler (no date given), Golden and Blue-Winged warblers (May 10, notice how they lumped together in this report?), Tennessee Warbler (May 10), Nashville Warbler (May 6), Northern Parula (May 10), Yellow Warbler (May 3), Magnolia Warbler (May 9), Cape May warbler (May 9), Black-throated Blue Warlber (May 9, late), Yellow Rumped Warbler (April 16, editor noted 280 banded at Vischer Ferry), Black-throated Green Warbler (May 6, late), CERULEAN WARBLER# (May 17, this species breeds very locally in the region and was either not looked for or overlooked in past reports), Blackburnian Wabler (May 8), Chestnut-Sided Warbler (May 9, late), Bay-breasted Warbler (May 13), Blackpoll Warbler (May 15), Pine Warbler (May 3, late, likely overlooked), Prairie Warbler (May 8), Palm Warbler (April 22), Ovenbird (May 9, late), Northern Waterthrush (May 4), Mourning Wabler (May 17), Common Yellowthroat (May 10, late), Yellow-breasted Chat (May 6, still holding on), Louisiana Waterthrush (May 8, very late.  Overlooked?), HOODED WARBLER# (May 30, a beginning of an increase in our area), Wilson’s Warbler (May 13), Canada Warbler (May 13) and American Redstart (May 10).

# birds not on the 1955 or 1965 reports.


I was actually alive and even doing a bit of birding at the age of 4, but I was too young to volunteer to be editor for Region 8 and no one else stepped up to the challenge, as such there was no Region 8 report from Spring 1985.  Boo!

1995 (KB: v45 n3)

I was actually alive and actually birding during this time (I was a freshman in High School).  Those were the days when Red-bellied Woodpecker could only be found reliably in one spot in Albany County at Coeymans Landing and I remember finding a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher nest also in Coeymans, when that species was still rather uncommon.

Of course as I read the report, I noticed my own name there.  Apparently I reported Chimney Swift on Apr 19 and Blue-winged Warbler on Apr 30 both in Ravena.  Now that I think about it, I remember that Blue-winged Warbler, I had to hunt it down in some really thick stuff, but finally pished it out into view.  But actually my reports were not too far off, as the Editor (Jane Graves) reported that many birds were 1-2 weeks ahead of schedule that year.  However, this report is frustrating in a way as many of the arrival dates were not noted, but instead dates with max number of reports or high counts of individuals.  I put in dates where I could.

Blue-winged Warbler (Apr 30, yours truly!), BREWSTERS and LAWRENCES Warblers (the dreaded GWWA X BWWA hybrids.  No Golden-winged Warbler were reported, which means the tipping point came in the 1980’s and the one report we are missing!), Tennessee Warbler (6 reports), ORANGE CROWNED WARBLER^ (May 13, rare in spring), Nashville Warbler (6 reports), Northern Parula (9 reports), Yellow Warbler (max of 40!), Chestnut-sided Warbler (16 reports), Magnolia Warbler, Cape-May Warbler (3 reports), Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Pine Warbler (5 April, much earlier than previous reports, but more likely on target), Prairie Warbler (Apr 30), Palm Warbler (Apr 6, early), Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Cerulean Warbler (no reports), Worm-Eating Warbler (May 13, late), Northern Waterthrush (Apr 23, early), Louisiana Waterthrush (Apr 9, early compared to past reports, but recent years have shown this date to be near ‘average’), Mourning Warbler (5 reports), Wilson’s Warbler (May 17), Canada Warbler.

2005 (KB: 2005 v55 n3)

The editor Will Yandik, noted that the early warblers were “early” and the other warblers were “late”.  However, at least in my opinion these are still within historical ranges of arrival.

Blue-winged Warbler (May 5), Tennessee Warbler (May 18), Nashville Warbler (May 10), Yellow Warbler (Apr 29), Chestnut-sided Warbler (May 6), Magnolia Warbler (May 3), Black-throated Blue Warbler (May 7), Black-throated Green Warbler (Apr 22, early), Blackburnian Warbler (May 14, late), Pine Warbler (Apr 6, early), Palm Warbler (Apr 14), Blackpoll Warbler (May 12), Cerulean Warbler (May 19, late and away from known breeding areas), Worm-eating Warbler (May 29, very late), Ovenbird (May 3), Northern Waterthrush (Apr 16, very early), Louisiana Waterthrush (Apr 13), Mourning Warbler (May 27, very late and only report), Wilson’s Warbler (May 14, only 1 report), Canada Warbler (May 15).


It’s interesting that after I started writing this, I received my copy of Birding magazine.  Inside was an article about how Henry David Thoreau had theorized the connections between the blooming of planets, the arrival birds and the hatching of insects.  To summarize the article, they compared dates of flowers blooming and bird arrivals in the Concord, MA area and found while plants are blooming 1-2 weeks earlier then they did in the 1850’s, birds still seem to arrive at the same time now, that they did in the 1850’s.

Looking back at 50 years of warbler arrival dates here in the Albany, NY area, we again found that the arrival times are pretty even.  Now there are other factors, such as weather we can easily adjust the arrival dates either way by a good week, plus as I noted, observer efforts have improved in recent times as opposed to the 1950’s.  What we have seen was the sudden decline and almost disappearance of Golden-winged Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats, but those are directly connected to habitat loss and a genetic swamp by a similar species.  But for the most part, despite whether it was a “good” Spring or a “bad” spring, Warblers still arrive very much the same time now as they did 50 (and as the birding magazine stated, almost 150 years ago too!).


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