Tag Archives: Audubon Society of Northern Virginia

The Improbable Mr. Wilson: A Tale Of A Wandering Warbler

There has been a lot of chirping about a little yellow bird at Huntley Meadows Park recently. Ever since a Wilson’s warbler was unexpectedly seen during the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count on Sunday, December 30, staff, volunteers, and visitors have been curious about the bird’s origin. A tiny patch of orange plumage above the bird’s beak sparked a debate and led to the endearing moniker, The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

According to park manager Kevin Munroe, Wilson’s warblers, like most warblers found in the park, are neo-tropical migrants, which means they breed somewhere in the northeastern U.S. and Canada each spring and summer before traveling south to spend their winters in Mexico, Central America, or South America. Munroe says it’s not unheard of to see a misplaced migrant at this time of year, but they typically either move on or expire due to a lack of food sources. For a specialist in hunting insects like Mr. Wilson, January in Northern Virginia is a tough place to find a meal.

However, Mr. Wilson has proven to be a resourceful visitor. Since his first sighting, scores of people have reveled in the sight of the wandering warbler feeding at the birdfeeders next to the visitor center. He has managed to avoid the hunting hawks and was photographed chomping on a caterpillar. Mr. Wilson has also been seen feeding on Sweetgum seeds along the paved trails. As people inadvertently step on the spiky pods, Mr. Wilson swoops in to munch on the released seeds.

Wilson's Warbler by Dave Boltz

The Improbable Mr. Wilson snacks on a caterpillar.

One theory about Mr. Wilson’s visit is that he is filling up for a late departure for the Southeast U.S. or the Gulf Coast, where he could survive on seeds, berries, and any available insects. But it is the presence of the bright orange markings visible in the many high-quality photos being shared online that have birders wondering if Mr. Wilson may have traveled from the west, not the north.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson's beak caused quite a stir.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson’s beak caused quite a stir.

After seeing the orange forehead in a photo, longtime birder Bill Young exclaimed, “Mr. Wilson appears to be even more improbable than he seemed at first glance.” Young has had many close looks at Wilson’s warblers in the past, but doesn’t recall ever seeing the orange marking. He and Paula Sullivan consulted the Garrett and Dunn warbler guide and found that there are three varieties of Wilson’s. Of the three, only one displays the orange markings, the chryseola. They learned that the chryseola variety breeds along a narrow band of the West Coast, from southern British Columbia to Southern California, and winters in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and south to western Panama.

This revelation led Young to declare, “So Mr. Wilson is most likely not an eastern or central bird who is a little late and a bit off course; he probably came from the other coast of North America, which is a pretty amazing trip for a creature who weighs about a quarter of an ounce.”

Huntley Meadows volunteer and avid bird buff Larry Cartwright, known among birding circles as an expert, concurs with Young’s assessment.  “I think this vagrancy from the west happens frequently. We had a dark yellow warbler that turned out to be one of the dark western subspecies, and there is quite a number of Rufous/Allen’s hummingbirds reported this year and they are all from the west. So Bill is absolutely right.”

Although Munroe is confident the wandering warbler began its journey on the West Coast, he said, “We can’t exactly check his passport, so we’ll never really know.” He remains open to other theories and welcomes discussion.

Mr. Wilson was last seen in the park on Wednesday, January 2. The birders who were fortunate enough to have seen him are grateful for his improbable visit and wish him a safe journey home – wherever that may be.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer

Treasures in Silence at Hidden Pond

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Sometimes the easiest way to observe nature is to stay put and let nature come to you.  You might relax on a park bench and notice a frog flip into a pond, or pause during a walk (I like to schedule my pauses for the uphill sections) to quietly let a deer browse ever closer.  You learn that good things come to those who wait. 

Staying put also is one way to survey wildlife. 

The annual Northern Virginia Bird Survey, hosted for 18 years by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, employs this method for counting all the birds that can be heard or seen. Surveyors stand for five minutes at specific points located 250 meters apart.  The yearly June survey identifies the breeding birds in our area.  Is it probable that some birds are missed by this method?  Yes, but it nevertheless provides a good snapshot of what’s around. 

Taking part in the survey is also a good exercise in attention span.  Try it. Go outside, be quiet, and see how many birds, butterflies or frogs or whatever you choose you can count in five minutes.  I have found in conducting these surveys that I have a three-minute attention span, because I invariably look at my watch after three minutes.

This year, I surveyed birds at six points at Hidden Pond Nature Center and along the Pohick Stream on June 30. These are the 36 species I recorded: 

Cedar Waxwing

Great Blue Heron (not breeding)
Red-shouldered Hawk
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift (fly over)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Blue Jay
American Crow (fly over)
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Carolina Wren

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Parula
Common Yellowthroat
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Eastern Towhee
Song Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle (fly over)
American Goldfinch

Now it’s your turn. Here’s another opportunity for a few peaceful moments outdoors. Grab a book or download an app about bird identification or bird calls. Head out to a nearby park. There are over 400 of them in the county. Stand still. Five minutes. Okay, three. Listen. Look.

Turned into a nice day, didn’t it?

By Carmen Bishop, Hidden Pond Nature Center