We have ten days in North Carolina to get DNA samples from three species breeding there. Our target for the first five days is the Kentucky Warbler, a golden bird with a black mask whose population is declining. It is a highly local bird, meaning that we can’t just find them anywhere within the shaded region of a large-scale range map: we need specific location information. We get this information from eBird, following birders’ reported sightings to a place about an hour south of Raleigh called Howell Woods.
“How did y’all find us?” asks the manager of Howell Woods. “There’s folks on our road that don’t know we exist, but somehow we get birders from Europe asking about Kentucky Warbler and Mississippi Kite. I never understand it.”
The land is a patchwork of grassy meadows, tall hardwood forest, and stands of young longleaf pine that have been planted in an effort to restore that historically-prevalent forest type.
It is astonishingly green and wet. The ground squelches under our boots when it isn’t simply a puddle; water hangs in the air and we are instantly covered in sweat that cannot dry. When we pull our feet out of our boots at the end of the day, our socks are soaked through with sweat.
On the first day we think we hear the Kentucky Warbler’s song everywhere, then discover that we have been fooled by the Carolina Wren’s similar song. Neither of us have birded on the east coast, so our ears are not properly trained to all the minor variations of melody.
There is life everywhere. The puddles are filled with black tadpoles and graceful swimming beetles. Spiders watch us through their many eyes, and a strange black creature stretches itself into a variety of shapes and then regurgitates half a worm into my hand.
We have an excellent day, five Kentucky Warblers banded and sampled and released, and then our days are not so good. Even within Howell Woods, these birds are local, and we hike farther and farther trying to find another patch of them.
My face is so covered in mosquito bites that it looks lumpy, like that of a boxer at the end of a long career.
A suddent crashing in the undergrowth next to us one morning, and an enormous black feral hog appears on the trail and thunders away from us. On another day, as we search for our warblers, we come upon an area of ground strewn with pig skulls, large patches of black bristly hair, and a noticeable smell. We have accidentally discovered the place where hog hunters clean their kills.
The other birds in Howell Woods are ridiculously, comically beautiful. Male Summer Tanagers are everywhere, calling to their dullish yellow mates with their drip-drop calls, their bodies entirely a pure vivid red. Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, and Eastern Bluebirds are all flashes of blue, some darker and deeper, others a bright shiny glint.
Light at night attracts an astonishing array of moths.
We try to find our birds in a nearby state park as well. The woman at the visitor information center raises her eyebrows when we ask if she has any idea where Kentucky Warblers might be; “Well, my first thought is, ‘Go to Kentucky,'” she says drily. We hike through the likeliest-looking habitat but find none.
In the end we sample 11 Kentucky Warblers, well short of our target of 20, but still enough—we hope—to fill the gap in our map of their geographic genetic variation. We can’t stay to catch more: we need to head west, to the mountains, to chase our other target birds.