Warbler Delight

The water is wide;
I can cross o’er.

I suppose that someday, suddenly, I will be transferred to another age, for example the chivalric or the bronze. The hope is, of course, that I arrive in period dress, but that I not resemble a contemporary luminary, for I wish to simply onlook. But, more probably, thanks to chronologically garbled garb, or my mistakable face, which will lead to expectations of competence, I will have to explain my occurrence. That explained, I will have to explain my age, The Present, also known as “The Future” in the past. This is why I am studying our great inventions and advances, to be ready for questions.

First of all, it seems imperative to understand modern bird migration, for birds used to fly to the moon in September and then fly back in the springtime. Now why birds wintered on the moon is a good question, but this is what people realized what was happening when they saw swallows flying toward the silv’ry globe. Birds nowadays usually just go to Brazil or Morocco for the winter. Thus I hope to be useful to the exhausted birds of the past by explaining how their posterity succeeds with much-abbreviated trips.

One little bird, however, the blackpoll warbler, performs a migratory feat reminiscent of birds’ wintering-on-the-moon days: starting out from Alaska, the blackpoll warbler flies 2,000 miles east to Nova Scotia. There he gorges himself on webworms and sawflies and gets fat while waiting for a strong northwest wind to blow him off his twig and up over the Atlantic Ocean. Once he is wind-lifted, he begins his 2,000-mile transoceanic flight to Venezuela.

But fat is a gross word for a trifle-sized bird—a four-inch-long sprite knit of feathers, hollow bones, and heart. Warblers are not beefy like geese; a goose on your head gets irksome, compressing your neck; but a warbler could spend the week there undetected, like a cherry or a shilling. Even with their enormous hearts, warblers weigh one-third of an ounce, which means forty-eight warblers to the pound! Their song, too, is small and sheer—tsi tsi tsi tsi tsi tsi—not like that of Disney songbirds, who employ feverish vibrato when filmed singing with castle-banished maidens. Blackpolls sing more for each other than for the camera.

After a rather provincial upbringing—blackpoll warblers spend their first three months eating insects in spruce-fir forests of northern Alaska and Newfoundland, staying within an acre of where they hatched in June—the tiny spirits are gripped with a restlessness to pitch themselves into a 5,500-mile trip over unknown terrain, to arrive in an unknown land. Comfort does not fascinate warblers: even if you put them in a warm, well-wormed cage in Ohio, come September they’re still facing impatiently toward Brazil, hopping and scratching and frantic. “Only Brazil worms, only Brazil worms, only Brazil worms!”

Terns and shearwaters also fly astonishing distances over water, but as they are flying and swimming birds, the whole ocean is for them a stopover. They can plop down on the water when they get tired and have some Fish Delight. Blackpoll warblers cannot swim, for they have tiny grippy bone-toes that do not serve in the water (try swimming across the pool with a fork in each hand). If they touch the ocean water they become Warbler Delight. They are not waterproof and they do not float; no, they get soggy, then sink. And so they must keep flying from the coast of Nova Scotia to the coast of Venezuela—flying for eighty or ninety hours straight! No rest, no food, no water. They do not glide tranquilly either, like albatrosses; they fly like this:

amy leach words shaped like a mountain range

If they are not flapping, they are dropping. With short wings, perfect for chasing those wickedly nimble Alaskan flies through thick mazy jumbles of spruce and brush and thicket, warblers are vigorous and sparkling little flyers, but they do not soar over the ocean. Daedalus did not build Icarus warbler wings. On long flights they sprint forward—then fold their wings back and drop—many times a minute.

They find their way by the stars, they find their way by the sun, they find their way by little crystals in their heads that guide them magnetically. And they navigate by landmarks, too, landmarks they remember every year. This is why sometimes young-polls who have nothing to remember will find that they have traveled not to Venezuela but to Ireland, wintry.

If they do arrive in Venezuela, the warblers are just feathers and bones, all the worm-fat spent. They land on the beach and for an hour or so just lie there dazed, after their four-day transcendence. People can walk right up to them and they don’t care, they’ve just crossed the ocean.

But then they shake off the sand and the lassitude, and they fluff up and eat some spiders and carry on for 1,500 more miles to Brazil for the winter, also known as “the summer” in Brazil. The blackpoll warbler flies oceanbreadths, transcending seas to transcend time. Although we walkers on the ground like to plan for sudden, drastic shifts in time, mostly we seem time-locked. We winter, we summer, we winter, we summer; while the warbler flies from summer to summer to summer to summer!

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