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In Search of the Elusive Orange Crowned Warbler

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Most people associate a cemetery with grief and loss. But for bird lovers in Charleston,  West Virginia, joy and discovery await at the city’s historic Spring Hill Cemetery, especially in spring.

With its grassy knolls and mix of tall pines and hardwoods, this burial ground teems with avian life, as songbirds returning from the tropics build nests, or pause on their way to breeding sites in our deeply wooded hills.

Indeed, so renowned is the cemetery for spring migrants that wildlife biologist Jerry Westfall traveled 75 miles from Parkersburg on a recent Sunday morning with one goal in mind:  to glimpse the elusive orange-crowned warbler at Spring Hill.

The orange-crowned is a drab little bird but for the bright patch on its head, for which it is named. Out West, it’s common to see this warbler during spring migration. But in West Virginia, it’s a rare find. Still, Charleston birder Russ Young saw one at Spring Hill Cemetery last year. That was enough for Jerry to rise before dawn and hightail it to Charleston, almost a year to the day of Russ’s sighting.  

As our band of Sabbath birders walked along the cemetery’s open paths, we spied bluebirds and a sassy brown thrasher. We noted a rough-winged swallow soaring overhead. We heard the mournful whistle of a white-throated sparrow. Between “bird finds” we chatted amiably, as birders do.

Then, suddenly, Jerry’s head cocked forward, his body froze, and all conversation ceased. His brow creased as he listened intently. We all listened. “Hear that?” Jerry asked softly, motioning to a line of trees at the edge of the cemetery. We listened again.

Jerry lived out West for a time, and he knows the voice of the orange-crowned warbler.  It’s a thin, rapid trill that descends toward the end. Kind of, Jerry said, like, “Tee-Tee-Tee-Tee-Tee-Tee-Tee-Tee, Too-Too-Too-Too.”

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Credit Wikipedia
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Orange-Crowned Warbler

Jerry followed the sound, and we followed Jerry.  Soon we were standing near the trees he had pointed to, our eyes transfixed on their leafy branches. We watched intently for a flit or a hop—trademark warbler behavior. 

Now the bird called loudly, leaving no doubt about its identity.  Jerry’s eyes were round and bright, but then, suddenly, hidden by his binoculars.  In that moment all binoculars rose, as did a collective gasp of birder delight. 

The orange-crowned warbler had emerged from the leaves, offering us a perfect view. In the morning sunlight, this bird was anything but drab. Though we saw no orange crown, its breast was lemony bright.  Later, Jerry jotted his find in a notebook. His quest had been a great success.

Meanwhile, high above the headstones, the orange-crowned warbler trilled on, each note sounding ever sweeter.


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