Monday, December 9, 2013

Sample OBRC Report - TOWA

An example OBRC report of mine, when I don't have photos - and to be honest - I'm interested to see how it "goes down" given that it's a pretty borderline report!

What do you think - will it fly?


OBRC Report – Townsend’s Warbler

Point Pelee National Park

May 1, 2013

Optics: Vortex Razor 8x42 Binoculars

Circumstances – I was birding from the Visitors Centre at Point Pelee, walking towards the tip along the main road. It was fairly birdy, as it had been for a few days in a row. Not very high numbers of individuals or species totals, but lots of good birds to be found.

As I was at the cut off to the Sparrow Field (not too far from the tip) I had a bird sing directly above my head – loud and clear – and I had no idea what it was… The tree I was standing under was no more than 20ft tall, and not very big… I will describe it more in detail later in the report, but the buzzy quality to some of the notes, somewhat reminiscent to a Prairie Warbler, immediately made me think of a story I had heard from Mike Burrell years ago about a Brewster’s Warbler at Charelston Lake Provincial Park (I believe) that was calling very much like a Prairie. I looked up – and saw the bird take flight (which was clearly the bird that had sang, given the very close proximity of the bird to myself and the fact that there were no leaves – so I could quickly scan with my eyes to see that there was no other birds present. I followed the bird in flight (thinking – crap crap crap it’s leaving) when it eventually landed in the very top of a large tree, perhaps 100ft or more up the road further south (not nearly as close). I was looking through a closer tree to this further one and managed to get my binoculars in focus on the bird. I was really expecting to see something like a Brewster’s/Blue-winged thing when I was stunned to see a member of the “Black-throated Green Superspecies” ! (I’ll go into details of what I saw below)… Suddenly after 2-3 seconds (with the bird facing away the entire time, looking southwards and very active) it took flight again and continued further south! I could tell it went a long way, so instead of running like a crazy person down the road – I went back to grab my Dad (who I believe was photographing a Turkey) and set into motion the further account below:

Based on what I had seen, I had two ideas in my head. It may sound crazy, but I figured I had either just seen a Townsend’s Warbler – or perhaps – a young male Golden-cheeked Warbler… I knew the bird did not have a black back of an adult male Golden-cheeked, but I felt like I had seen photos of a 1st alt male from Texas that wasn’t black backed  (more dull gray – but I didn’t remember). There was also one major problem that I had NO IDEA what Townsend’s or Golden-cheeked sounded like. I really couldn’t pull the trigger without SOME sort of research or listening to calls – which was engraved into my brain after hearing it so close and clear…
As I went to get my Dad, I decided to text Dave Bell and Josh Vandermeulen, who I knew were very likely at the tip watching the reverse migration unfolding. (Along with Ken Burrell, who wasn’t at the park). It was something like this:

“ Very unsure, but I think I just had a Townsend’s Warbler near the Sparrow Field. It is going to reverse”

Based on the birds behaviour, which I had seen thousands of birds do before – I had little doubt whatsoever that it was going to be (or already was) taking part in the reverse migration underway. I had very high hopes that they would hopefully intercept it there!

I grabbed my Dad and we walked fairly quickly to the tip, only looking at a few birds, with the goal of hopefully getting it in flight there… My Dad has the Sibley app on his phone, but today happened to be the day that he forgot it in the truck – so I had to wait longer to listen to bird songs (as I don’t have a smartphone).

We arrived at the tip and I saw Dave and Josh there, who just gave me a generic greeting and were looking skyward… I was a bit confused, and asked if they got my text. They looked at me and both replied “No” – and went for their phones… I retold my story, described the birds song in detail, then asked if they could play Townsend’s song for me… They pulled it up and played it, and to my surprise, looked at each other with a bit of shock on their face. Apparently they had heard the bird as well, as they walked out that morning – singing near the tip tram loop. However they couldn’t locate it and decided to leave it (I believe Josh thought it was probably just a really messed up Black-throated Green)… I forget who, but one of them said “That’s what we heard!!” and now shared in my surprise and excitement. The song they played was a very very very close match to what I had heard myself…

After we played it a few times, Dave Brown walked up with Mark Cunningham and said something along the lines of “OK, who’s playing tapes?”As he could tell there was sound coming from the phones. We told him we were playing TOWA and played it. Again to my surprise – Dave then turned to Mark and said “I told you I thought I heard a Townsend’s Warbler!”. Turns out they were somewhere south of the tip tram loop on their walk out and Dave believed he had heard a TOWA sing 2/3 times but they were unable to locate it and left it.

Despite this dramatic upswing in excitement, as I now knew TOWA was a damn near perfect match for what I had seen – we did not record the bird again (nor did anyone else). For interests sake, we later listened to Golden-cheeked and all agreed it sounded nothing like the bird we had heard – what so ever… My Dad eventually got his phone sometime in the afternoon and we listened to the Sibley App call (Dave Bell + myself) and it was virtually identical to what we had heard in the morning – with no detectable differences by ourselves. It does seem like TOWA has some variation in its song, but call#1 on the Sibley app was a perfect match.


            Visual – I really wish I had a better look at this bird, but I’m also damn happy I got the look that I did. I think there’s a chance I would never have tried to figure out what the song was without some sort of visual to point me in the right direction.

My entire view involved the bird sitting in the highest small branches of a rather tall tree (at some distance). It was facing south/away from me – so I was unable to get a few of the belly/throat. And it is probably important to note that I didn’t really have time to change focus/brain thought from “unknown bird” to “note fine details confirming TOWA” in the 2-3 second look I did have – I’ve done my best to describe exactly what DID manage to register before the bird flew:

-          Yellow face with dark face markings (couldn’t register if they were jet black or just dark) like a Golden-cheeked or TOWA. A bit darker than what I would expect for BTNW.
-          A black top on the head. (As stupid as this sounds, I didn’t actually remember until about 15+ hours later that this is not right at all for Black-throated Green).
-          A greenish/gray back (not jet black was the main thing I noticed) – extending down towards the rump.

And that’s all she wrote for my visual.

            Song: The song was really the most remarkable part of my experience with this bird. The first few notes were clear, and it was perhaps little more than the loud clear quality that first caught my ear. The excitement factor picked up when I heard a steadily rising buzz like a Prairie Warbler. The shock factor took over when the song changed once again as the end of the call went extremely high – somewhat like a Black-and-White but not really the same. Overall it was a long-ish warbler call that had 3 different qualities built within one steady call (not really separated into parts like I would say for CERW or BLBW) – they just sort of flowed into new sounds from the last.

The fact that the bird was really damn close when it sang, (right above me) allowed for an incredibly clear and unobstructed chance to hear it and note the details.

Seperation of Similar Species:

            Hermit Warbler – The bird I saw did not match Hermit Warbler. The black on the back of the head (and top) along with black in the yellow face patch are wrong for this species. The back colour of Hermit, being a pale gray, is also at odds with the dull greenish/olive/grayish pattern I saw on this bird. The song of Hermit is somewhat variable, but the variations described and what I listen to online (described as: a rapid series of high buzzy phrases, ending abruptly with higher or lower notes (sibley)…) are at odds with the bird I heard as well.
            Golden-cheeked Warbler – the fact that the bird sang eliminates a female, and the lack of a black back eliminates a full adult/def alt. bird. I never actually did any further research on the photos (I believe) I saw in the past of a 1st alt male that did not have a black back – but thankfully the songs of these species are really quite different – being remarkably similar to Black-throated Green and not like the song described above.

            Black-throated Green Warbler – based on what I saw, (very briefly) this was perhaps the bird that was visually the most similar to my look at the TOWA. Although at the time, I had somehow managed to forget that a black (to black-ish) back and top of the head that I saw was totally at odds with BTNW. The face pattern looked too dark to be BTNW on my bird as well, however I really didn’t get a great look at this feature as the bird was largely facing away (it was quickly looking from side to side, as many reverse migrants do – so I DID have a bit of a look, just not long or clear enough to be totally sure of what I was seeing). The main thing that has me totally confident this bird was not a BTNW is the song. Thankfully living in Ontario has given me a lot of experience hearing this species and the song (as described above) isn’t even remotely close to any variation I have ever heard in BTNW.

            Hybrids – based on some books and internet searching’s, it sounds like many Hermit X Townsend’s Warblers have a mix of features between the two – often with a Hermit like face pattern (unlike my bird). Sibley states that they are rarely identified elsewhere. The Peterson guide to Warblers (Dunn and Garrett) states that hybrids are regular in a very small area of overlap in Washington state – and at the time of publication – only one hybrid had been recorded in the east (Newfoundland) – with at least one more since publication (New York). It also states that the majority of hybrids appear more similar to Hermit – with hybrids looking like Townsend’s rare but occurring.  Can I say 100% for sure that this bird doesn’t have some measure of Hermit Warbler in it? Probably not, as hybrids are crazy sometimes. But I reached a point where I needed to call a spade a spade with this bird and assume that Townsend’s Warbler would be more likely than some sort of Townsend’s Warbler look-and-sound-alike hybrid imposter (which is extremely rare in the east – potentially unrecorded in the spring). The same train of thought applies for something like Townsend’s X BT Green (recorded in Texas) – too rare and unexpected, given that my bird showed nothing at odds with TOWA based on my observations – and the species has a huge range extending far north into Canada.

Weather: A southeast breeze was blowing thanks to a stalled high pressure system to our SE. There was a huge blocking high over the ocean that had totally stalled the North American weather patterns. This allowed for several enjoyable days of overshoots and reverse migrations at Pelee (no major numbers, but great birding). I may be totally wrong, but I would suspect that this birds arrival at the tip of Pelee was either random, or it was pushed into Ontario during powerful storms back in late April and had simply found itself at the tip of Pelee – days later – as many vagrants do as they wander after becoming lost(?).

Additional Comments: While I know that this really isn’t the type of sighting of a TOWA that many birders would like to have, it was still very exciting and proved to be a superb learning experience. I compared the excitement to watching reverse migrants at the tip of Pelee. As an example, seeing a Prairie Warbler in flight going out into the lake isn’t exciting because you had an awesome look at a Prairie Warbler  - but IS damn exciting because you feel like you nailed a sweet bird in a very difficult situation. That was sort of the feeling involved with this sighting. It wasn’t an in-your-face obvious situation, but I felt really good about getting a positive ID on this bird in less than ideal circumstances. I have no hesitations and am totally confident in calling this bird a Townsend’s Warbler.

Brandon Holden
1709-301 Frances Ave.
Stoney Creek, ON
L8E 3W6


  1. Glad you are doing a report. However with such a brief description (but hey, you only had brief looks right?) plus the dreaded phrase of "potential hybrid" it will be interesting to see how it flies with the OBRC. I wonder if anyone else saw it and will write an OBRC report as well. Perhaps that will help in getting your report accepted.........Although I guess it could do the opposite as well if a second report is poorly written. Again, it will be interesting to see if it gets accepted :)

  2. Crazy bird...if only it hung around a bit longer!