Black-and-white Warbler


The warbler shown in this print was photographed on Heritage Street, between a parking deck at City Hall and Holyoke District Court:


Below, a field recording posted to the bird audio archive site Xeno-Canto:

Birding can be a solitary pursuit, but it’s often a surprisingly collaborative process.

After I spotted a pair of Pine Grosbeaks in Holyoke’s Heritage State Park this January, I noted my sighting on a Facebook group devoted to birding in western Massachusetts. Another local birder, acting on my tip, visited the park to look for them.

He didn’t find the Grosbeaks. Instead, he got a bigger surprise: a Black-and-white Warbler.

This species of warbler is regularly seen during the spring migration, but it’s extremely rare to spot one this far north in the dead of winter.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s range map for the species shows the bird wintering no further north than the coast of South Carolina. Most of its winter range is in Florida, Mexico, Central America and parts of South America.

As I tried to figure out just how rare his sighting was for western Massachusetts, I ran a search in eBird, the online database of reported observations.

This map of eBird data shows Black-and-white Warbler sightings reported in the northeast during the month of January for the years 2009-2013:

Image provided by eBird ( and created Jan. 12, 2013. Click to enlarge.

Image provided by eBird ( and created Jan. 12, 2013. Click to enlarge.

Each square on the map represents an area where the bird was sighted; the color represents the frequency of sightings in that area. The pale lavender squares represent eBird’s lowest level of frequency for sightings — and there aren’t a lot of lavender squares on that map.

From Virginia to Canada, January sightings have only been reported in Boston, and in the New York City and Washington, D.C. areas.

January sightings of the species, designated as a ‘notable’ bird in eBird’s database, don’t pick up until well into South Carolina.

No western Massachusetts sightings are recorded in the data set.

That, of course, that the birds haven’t been here. It only means they haven’t been reported through the eBird system. Still, the Holyoke warbler was an unlikely bird in an unlikely place.

A few days after hearing about the report of the warbler, I headed out to try to see it for myself.

It didn’t take long to find it.

About a block from my apartment, in a row of trees between the parking deck at City Hall and Holyoke District Court, the warbler was flitting from limb to limb, colorless as the January sky.

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