Bird and Memory of the Week – Magnolia Warbler

The Bird and Memory of the Week is the Magnolia Warbler, Setophaga magnolia. Thanks to our digital world and good friends in the Washington Birding Community, on June 5, 2013 I got to see one in Washington State where they are quite rare. This is a perfect example of why I have chosen to include a “Memory” in this blog each week. It recalls great birds, great people, great places and great times.

On June 4 2013, George Pagos and I set off on a whirlwind trip to Eastern Washington. Jon Isacoff, an extraordinary birder in the Spokane area had agreed to meet us for a tour de force of Calispell Lake, a beautiful and very birdy area in Pend Oreille County on June 5. The area is home to a number of specialty birds and has become one of my favorite Washington birding locations. We left early on the morning of the 4th with some planned stops before a night in Spokane and then another early start for our trip with Jon.

We had a long list of possible birds and a good number of target species but Magnolia Warbler was certainly not included. I first saw a Magnolia Warbler on May 9, 1975 at the Pocomoke River State Park in Maryland. I was on a field trip as part of the Maryland Ornithological Union Convention. It was led by the legendary Chan Robbins – an extraordinary birder and co-author of my first Birding Guide Book – Birds of North America – part of the Golden Field Guide series. In Maryland, Magnolia Warblers are a dime a dozen and on that extraordinary day, it was merely one of the 20 warbler species seen. In all we observed more than 135 species – many of them life birds for me as a beginning birder. I am sure that trip will have a blog post of its own someday.

Chan Robbins and Birds of North America (my first guidebook)

Chan Robbins   Birds of North America





I had also seen Magnolia Warblers on April 25, 1978 on one of those heaven sent “fallout” days on High Island in Texas where migrating birds exhausted from their flights across the Gulf of Mexico literally fall to the ground at first opportunity – this day right in front of three of us. I no longer have the official list but recall that we had more than 25 warbler species that day. I would never have guessed that another 35 years would pass until I next saw this species – and certainly would never have expected it to be in Washington. Back to our trip…

George and I first stopped at Recreation Road near Vantage, historically a good spot for a Black Throated Sparrow. We were on the trail before 8:00 a.m. and were rewarded with close-ups of this beautiful bird, and among other species we also had Bullock’s Oriole and Rock Wren. A great start to the day. Unfortunately in the last couple of years Black Throated Sparrow sightings here have been few if any – a great loss.

Black Throated Sparrow – Recreation Road

Black Throated Sparrow

We saw birds along the way, but our next official stops were Potholes State Park in Grant county and then Palouse Falls State Park in Franklin County. Our best birds in these locations were Forster’s Tern, Golden Eagle and Grasshopper Sparrow. We continued to Crooked Knee Lake and Sheep Lake in Whitman County where we found our targeted Black Tern (which proved to be easy elsewhere later). We ended the day at North Forker Road in Spokane County where we missed Clay Colored Sparrow but had a good look at our first Black Chinned Hummingbird.

Early the next morning we atoned for our Clay Colored Sparrow miss finding 2 in a grassland at West Medical Lake and then 2 more on South Stroup Road also in Spokane County. In both places they were accompanied by Vesper and Savannah Sparrows.

Clay Colored Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow 2

We pushed on to Pend Oreille and we met Jon Isaacoff near Calispell Lake. It was a picture perfect day and Jon was an extraordinary guide. I am not going to go into each location around the lake in detail – read the Guide to Bird Finding in Washington section on the area – or better yet find a trip with Spokane Valley Audubon or WOS and just go. The birds are wonderful, the scenery great and you will want to return many times. In three hours with Jon (including the time we were stuck behind a large bull on the road that did not want to give ground and we did not want to further arouse and possibly suffer major car damage), we tallied 76 species including several that this area is famous for: Bobolink, Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart, and Red-Eyed Vireo.

Calispell Lake

Calispell Lake

Bobolink – Calispell Lake


Northern Waterthrush – Calispell Lake

Northern Waterthrush


American Redstart – Calispell Lake

American Redstart

Red-Eyed Vireo – Calispell Lake

Red Eyed Vireo

Other good birds included more Black Terns, Virginia Rail, Sora, Redhead, Black Chinned, Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds, Red Naped Sapsucker, Cassin’s and Warbling Vireo, Pygmy Nuthatch and Ruffed Grouse. A wonderful place and day. Many many thanks to Jon.

It is a long drive back to Seattle and we wanted to make it home that evening. We made a quick stop at Reardan Ponds and then headed west. Somewhere along Interstate 90 I checked my email and found that Mike Clarke and Kevin Black had found a Magnolia Warbler at the Ranger Station at Ginkgo State Park. We had wonderful birds that day but a Magnolia Warbler would be a new State bird for both George and me and we were headed that way. To repeat something I am sure I have said earlier and will repeat often, “Just get out into the field and you never know what might happen.” Or said another way, “If you are not out in the field, nothing will happen.”

I had Mike’s cell number and gave it a try. Not only did he answer, he was still at the Ranger Station looking at the warbler. We were an hour away (“Officer, I swear there were no speed limit signs”). I hoped for detailed information and then a chance it would stay and we would find it. But Mike and Kevin are as good as it gets both as people and as birders and they said – “We will wait for you.” And they did. We arrived around 6:45 p.m. and joined them at the Ranger residence. Thankfully in June the days are long and even by 7:00 p.m. there was still plenty of light. The warbler had not left but was currently buried in a thick bush below and not visible. While we waited for it to make an encore appearance in the open, we were treated to a super view of a Common Nighthawk – roosting on a branch a few feet away.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

We could see fluttering below but the bird would not emerge. Finally after maybe 20 minutes we got a sufficient view for a sure ID and a photo. Mine (on left) was terrible. George who is an excellent photographer got a much better one (right).

Magnolia Warbler Magnolia Warbler

We also had a Lark Sparrow and a Wilson’s Warbler there. All told we had nine different sparrow species and nine different warbler species for the trip – not bad in Washington.  The Magnolia Warbler was species number 107 for our trip. It was also my 296th species in Washington for that year and and my 376th Washington State Life Bird. And it was gorgeous…And how appropriate that it was within a couple of miles where we had found the Black Throated Sparrow the previous morning.

This was definitely a day when I got all three of the great possibilities when birding … great people (Jon, Mike, Kevin and of course George), great places (many) and great birds – again many but especially the Magnolia Warbler.

Fast forward to June 2015. I was in Maine on a birding trip described in a previous blog. Now Magnolia Warblers were commonplace. I saw 20 during the several days in Maine. Still never got a really great photo but now at least I had one of my own where you could see the head not buried in a thick bush.

Magnolia Warbler – Baxter State Park – Maine

Magnolia Warbler


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