The other morning at 6:00 o’clock, at Hickey Fork in the Pisgah National Forest’s Shelton Laurel Backcountry Area in Madison County, the loud ringing song of a Swainson’s warbler shattered the early morning stillness. The mnemonic for the Swainson’s song is “whee, whee, whee, whip-poor-will, chick.”
I’m not particularly good at hearing mnemonics in birdsong but the three loud clear introductory notes (I would lengthen them to wheeee, wheeee, wheeee) of the Swainson’s are diagnostic. They are followed by a rapid jumble of notes that ends abruptly and “whip-poor-will, chit” seems as good as anything.
This LBJ (little brown job) is an uncommon skulker of dense rhododendron and mountain laurel tangles generally along creek banks in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I imagine it is initially checked on many birder’s life lists as “heard only.”
Beware if you dive into one of these rhododendron hells in search of a Swainson’s that sounds like it’s “right there.” This little ventriloquist will have you walking in circles as it sings from the ground and/or low in the bushes.
Swainson’s nest across the Southeastern United States and are most often associated with canebrakes. Although Audubon formally described the species in 1834 and named it after English naturalist William Swainson, it wasn’t documented in the Southern Appalachians until the 1930s. The move to the mountains is generally thought to be an extension of the bird’s coastal range with rhododendron slicks substituting for canebrakes.
While the Swainson’s is, indeed, a LBJ, it is a handsome LBJ. It is a warm olive-brown above with a russet cap and a whitish supercilium or eyebrow. It’s breast and belly is cream-colored with immature birds showing a yellowish wash.
In the winter the Swainson’s trades its New World tangles for similar habitat in exotic places like Jamaica, the Yucatan and the West Indies. It has a global conservation ranking of “G4” – “apparently secure.” It is listed as uncommon but not rare. It is state listed as “S3” – vulnerable. This is most likely due to loss and threatened continued loss of habitat.
While it takes patience and perseverance to get good looks at this secretive bird, you can increase your chances by visiting known locations. I heard at least three Swainson’s at Hickey Fork the other morning. We also regularly record Swainson’s at Boone Fork in the Grandfather Ranger District. Jocassee Gorges in South Carolina is said to have one of the densest population of breeding Swainson’s warblers in the region. They may also be found at the newly created Chimney Rock State Park and along Bull Pen road along the Chattooga River near Highlands.