Northern Parula

“The parula warbler has a simple, but to my ears a very distinctive, song,” wrote Arthur C. Bent, in Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers.* “In 1900 I recorded the song in my notes as ‘pree-e-e-e-e-e-e, yip, a somewhat prolonged trill like a pine warbler’s, but fainter and more insect-like, ending abruptly in the short yip with a decided emphasis.’ I have always been able to recognize it by the explosive ending, which I never heard from any other wood warbler.”

For the past four weeks, since the middle of April, a Northern Parula – a small wood warbler that most often nests in wooded wetland areas – has been singing in the woods and even in the trees close around our house almost every day. Tiny, very quick, and constantly moving, a Parula can be difficult to see – at least for me. It usually stays well hidden, deep in dense foliage, and lately I’ve spent a lot of time staring into the green leaves of the oaks, with its distinct, beckoning song trilling right in front of me and all around me, like a tease – and I can’t see a thing. It’s like some kind of mischievous wood sprite – here, but invisible.

But once I’ve seen the female, and twice I’ve managed to spot the male.

Late on a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago – a cloudy, rainy afternoon, with watercolor-green April showers – I heard the song of a Parula in the oaks and pecans around one side of our house. After about ten minutes or so of watching and listening and following the song, I finally spotted him, perched on a small stub of a branch on a large pecan tree that was thick with dripping leaves and wet, dangling clusters of green flowers. He was preening, and at first looked all fluffed out and gray. Then he turned my way and I could see the sunny yellow throat and breast, and the smudge of dark coral in a band across the breast. He looked very small, and everything he did seemed to happen in fast-forward motion. He fanned his tail feathers, preened his breast, turned his head over a shoulder to comb the feathers there – and several times paused to lift his head up and sing. Then abruptly, he flew.

Late this afternoon, I saw him again in the same tree. Again, the weather was cloudy and wet, after a night and a day of rain. He hopped and flitted along the branches, stopping frequently to sing. I was further away this time and could barely make out the markings, but could see his diminutive shape very well, and could see as he stopped and lifted his head each time to sing the elusive but clear and crisp – pree-e-e-e-e-e-e, yip!

*Arthur C. Bent, Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers, 1953, page 144.

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