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Cerulean Warblers at Skinner State Park

Skinner State Park and the hunt for Cerulean Warblers:

Cape Cod is a great place for bird watching. In fact, there are more species of birds seen in tiny Barnstable County than in the entire State of Montana (our fourth-largest state). Really. But even with all of our diversity, some birds only stop here on migration. This is the case with Cerulean Warblers. Each spring a few ceruleans are spotted on the Cape, but they never stay around long enough for many of us (mostly me) to see one. Well, I’ve finally gotten tired of waiting for one of these striking birds to come to me. It was time for me to go look someplace else. But where? Skinner State Park, of course. Duh!

Early one morning I ran into fellow birder, Peter Trimble. Peter told me he once found Cerulean Warblers in Skinner State Park. Huh? I’ve lived in Massachusetts all my life and had never heard of this park. I went right home and looked it up. It turns out Skinner State Park is in Hadley, MA. Great! Where’s Hadley? As I was looking at a map, my wife walked in. I told her I was thinking about taking a short birding trip and asked, “Wanna go?” Asking my wife if she wants to go somewhere is like asking kids if they want ice cream. The answer is always, “yes, yes, yes.” While my wife is packing, I’ll tell you a bit about Cerulean Warblers, just in case you don’t already know.

As their name suggests, Cerulean Warblers are mostly sky blue, with a fair amount of white and black mixed in. They are one of the first warblers to arrive each spring, but spotting one can be challenging since they spend most of their time foraging at the very tops of trees. Adding to this challenge is the fact that the population of Cerulean Warblers is in steep decline. The reason for this decline isn’t totally understood, but it’s probably pesticides, habitat loss and climate change. The usual. I could get into more details, but I finally found Hadley on the map and it was time to make a three-hour drive.

We spent the night in a Hadley hotel. (For some reason, my wife no longer likes sleeping in the car. Go figure.) The early morning drive to the park was surprisingly pleasant. I had no idea Hadley was so picturesque. The area is covered with charming farms and green pastures. Skinner State Park, developed around Mt. Holyoke, has several hiking trails, plus a road that winds its way to the top of the mountain. On the summit there’s an old hotel that now serves as a visitor center. When we arrived at the park we discovered that the road to the top was still “closed for the season.” (The season? It was the middle of May.) If we wanted to see the summit, and find the Cerulean Warblers, we would have to hike. At first, I cursed the State, but when I got out of the car I was met by a wall of singing birds. There were Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Wood Thrushes, and massive Pileated Woodpeckers. I instantly forgot about the road being closed. Actually, the closure was a good thing. Without cars zipping up and down, we could watch birds from the pavement, instead of the muddy trail. Plus, it turned out that the road to the top was only a mile and a half long. (It looked much longer on the map.) I had cursed the State for nothing…this time.

The walk up the mountain continued to be productive. As ravens called from overhead, we saw birds with entertaining names, such as American Redstarts, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ovenbirds, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Worm-eating Warblers. Ordinarily, seeing a Worm-eating Warbler would have been the highlight of any spring bird walk. Not on this day. Cerulean Warblers were still my goal. Every few feet I’d stop and listen for the male’s song but was having no luck, and we were almost at the end of the road. At one point I stopped longer than usual, while my wife continued on. In the back of my mind I began to wonder if this was going to be another trip where she found the goal bird first. But before I could complete my thought, a tiny sky-blue bird landed on the branch in front of me. Bingo! “I got it,” I yelled. As my wife came running, a second bird flew into view. Two Cerulean Warblers! Great! Well, not so great. You might think two were better than one, but not in this case. The two birds were rivals and they instantly began chasing each other. They flew over the trees and deep into the woods and never returned, even though I waited and waited. Oh well. Even though our view of the Cerulean Warblers was brief, it still counts. And more importantly, for the first time ever, I found a bird before my wife did, and that counts for even more…a lot more.

We continued to the top of Mt. Holyoke where we heard singing juncos and saw nesting phoebes. But the best part was the view. Down below was the winding Connecticut River Valley and across the river was the eclectic town of Northampton. Even without using our binoculars we could see the town’s historic buildings, church spires and hippie-filled coffee shops, and that’s where we were headed next.

I’m glad I visited Skinner State Park. (Thanks, Peter Trimble). Of course, every birding trip is different, but on this particular day the birds were excellent and the scenery was even better. Anyone traveling near Hadley should check out this park and do some birding. And who knows, maybe by the time you arrive, the State will actually have the gate to the mountain road open…but I wouldn’t count on it.