Warblers spice up spring for lucky birders

Young birders Nicholas Flores, left, and Ashly Griffin study a distant bird during Thursday morning birding trip at Chisholm Creek Park.
Young birders Nicholas Flores, left, and Ashly Griffin study a distant bird during Thursday morning birding trip at Chisholm Creek Park. The Wichita Eagle

Patty Marlett worked extra hours last week. Carolyn Schwab didn't work at all.

Both did it for itty-bitty warblers.

"The first and second weeks of May is prime time if you're going to see warblers in Kansas," Schwab said. "I really have to work to see these species and it's not easy to do if I'm working full-time."

Marlett gave early morning guided birding tours before her regular duties as a naturalist at the Great Plains Nature Center.

"Warblers are everybody's favorite," she said. "My favorite's the blackburnian warbler. They look like a glowing ember, they're so bright."

Bob Gress, Nature Center director and accomplished wildlife photographer, said about 15 species of warblers commonly come to Kansas from Mexico and South American wintering grounds.

A few stay and nest, though most pass through quickly heading to nesting grounds in northern forests.

Schwab's meticulous records show she's seen 40 species in Kansas over the past 30 years.

That means any spring birding adventure could yield an exciting sighting of a species seldom seen locally.

All three experienced birders stress there's no such thing as a ho-hum warbler sighting.

About thumb-sized and shy, warblers are often birds on the highest trees in thick woodlands.

"It's usually shadowy when you see them, so their colors just pop," Schwab said. "They're like little jewels up in the trees."

Gress likes that he often hears warblers singing before he sees them. Often he only has a few seconds to spot the bird before it moves off.

Along with Marlett, Gress led three groups of up to 30 people on early hikes through Chisholm Creek Park last week.

They looked and listened for long periods in the park's wooded areas.

Marlett said the wooded areas of Sedgwick County and Pawnee Prairie Parks can sometimes produce good birding for warblers in Wichita.

Oak Park is a top gathering area for warblers and their fans. She said it can also be a good learning area for beginning birders.

"If you go to Oak Park early about any morning late April or early May, you're going to find people looking for birds," Marlett said. "(Beginners) can talk to them and most will gladly show you stuff."

Serious area birders often head to eastern Kansas, where more woodlands usually equate to more warblers.

The Wichita Audubon Society scheduled a caravan to southeast Kansas for about three days this weekend. But warbler sightings have been slow across Kansas this spring.

Schwab's online research shows many still as far south as the Texas gulf coast.

She's afraid they'll pass through Kansas after she's back at work this week.

Next year she may take her quest for warblers on the road. A friend told her of some Minnesota woodlands where many of the species settle to nest for the summer.

She'd appreciate seeing and hearing many species of warblers in a single day.

"I may have to go up there one of these years," Schwab said, "Maybe that would really give me my warbler fix."