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Kentucky warbler nests in Mecklenburg then takes flight

I was concentrating on butterflies last Sunday on a shaded trail through a damp thicket at Cowan’s Ford Wildlife Refuge. Three of us were trying to sort out pearly-eye butterflies during the Southern Lake Norman Butterfly Count when a loud, rich, chip note – like the sound of loudly kissing the back of your hand – snapped me back into birding mode.

“Did I hear that right?” I wondered. I really needed to hear it again, and in a few seconds I did. I was 95 percent sure of what bird I was hearing, but I needed to see it to be sure.

I quit searching for Kentucky warblers in Mecklenburg County around mid-June. From mid-April until then I spent around 10 hours devoted exclusively to finding that species in the county. I visited all the traditional nesting sites, both recently known to sites from as long as 25 years ago, with no success. It was a species I had counted on in my quest to see 205 species of birds in the county in 2014, but I had conceded defeat on that one.

All three of us scanned the thick underbrush, me frantically, for movement. “I see it” someone said. “It’s a yellow bird.” I knew then it was my Kentucky warbler, and then the bright yellow, chunky warbler hopped up on a tangle, turned its head perfectly for me to see the black mustache, and then was gone. Thank goodness butterfly watchers use binoculars.

I had never seen a Kentucky warbler in fall migration until that day. They leave the breeding territories by August and slip through most areas while it’s still too hot for most birders to see them. It served as a reminder that migrants are coming through right now. To add emphasis to that point, we saw a female hooded warbler and a worm-eating warbler in close proximity.

Kentucky warblers are one of my favorite birds, and I have lamented their decline in Mecklenburg County as a breeder. This individual may have come from somewhere far away, but it does give me hope that perhaps it was from an unknown local territory. What is certain is that it was present in Mecklenburg that day, and I got to see it.