Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hermit Warbler

A Hermit Warbler was found by Vinny Pellegrino at Sunken Meadow State Park on Long Island on Saturday afternoon - a first state record that looks good for the species and remains only to be duly anointed by the records committee. I made a special trip on the very early morning of Wednesday to make it through NYC before the worst of rush hour and reach the park at dawn. Took me only a little while to find the warbler, and then I spent a little while photographing it.

This Hermit Warbler is especially significant because of a hybrid Townsend's X Hermit Warbler found at Jones Beach on Thanksgiving 2002 that I (amongst others) photographed and was the subject of quite a lot of discussion. NYSARC finally decided it was probably a hybrid and not a pure Hermit Warbler and so Hermit Warbler was not on the NY State list. Until now. The 2010 bird is gray-backed, lacks yellow in the vent (excludes Black-throated Green) and has a diffusely pale gray breast and flank. It appears to be a first fall female - the primary and retrix shape certainly indicates a first fall bird. The yellow eye ring is quite striking, as is the swath of yellow on the face - the slightly greener auricular patch is clearly limited to below a line from the bill through the eye which gives it quite a different pattern to Townsend's or Black-throated Greens which have larger auricular patches. This bird looks like it has a huge yellow supercilium by comparison. There's no evidence of Townsend's Warbler genes in it, short of capturing it and sequencing it to be totally certain.

And since this is merely birding, I don't think that sort of bird stress is ever justified just to fulfill curiosity.

Vagrancy being the mother of invention, this little warbler was seen feeding on the short grass along the northern edge of the park, in a manner that is quite atypical of other similar Dendroica warblers. Hermit belongs to the family of obviously closely-related warblers: Black-throated Green Warbler, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Townsend's Warbler and Hermit Warbler. Three of these species prefer evergreens to feed in, but Golden-cheeked breeds in Juniper-Oak habitat. Given the Hermit Warbler preference for conifers it's all the stranger for it to be feeding out in the open on grass, but I presume this is where the insects are and there's more of interest there than there is in the heavier cover. One of my photographs shows a very small insect on the tip of the warbler's bill - sub-millimeter size.

The Jones Beach Hermit hybrid was also a terrestrial bird, feeding amongst the ornamental kale/cabbages, which made for an interesting photographic backdrop.

Having seen a couple of females briefly on migration in AZ in late May in the company of migrating Townsend's, it was good to finally be able to take time to study one up close for an extended period, and be pretty sure I've seen a pure Hermit.

It's turning out to be quite a good rarity season (I've not seen either Ash-throated or Western Kingbird this fall, but they've been reported from NYC).

Update: this was apparently the last day the Hermit was seen - the following day it was absent, but a Merlin and a Cat were in the general area. I saw a falcon (probably the same Merlin) hunting the edge on Wednesday also. Wednesday night was also the coldest night of late, getting down into the low 20's F. Not a hospitable environment for a small vagrant warbler. It was not reported subsequently, and unfortunately that suggests that it succumbed to the elements.

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