by Carrie Naughton
In April 1962, at Moore’s Landing in what is now the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina, a group of observers made one of the last undisputed sightings of a Bachman’s Warbler. Like most of the more recent but unconfirmed sightings, this was an unmated male, trilling his buzzy notes into the heavy air.
The Reverend John Bachman, a close friend and colleague of John James Audubon, documented the first of his namesake warblers on the Edisto River in 1832. A naturalist and educator, Reverend Bachman served as the pastor of St. John’s Church in Charleston for 56 years. He also belonged to Charleston’s Circle of Naturalists, a group of academics and physicians devoted to the scientific collection and classification of biological specimens.
Bachman worked closely with John Audubon on the text for The Birds of America and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. The two naturalists became lifelong friends, indeed family – Audubon’s sons married Bachman’s daughters. John Bachman’s wife Maria Martin – herself a talented, and unfairly overlooked, illustrator – painted many of the contextual foliage backgrounds for Audubon’s bird illustrations, including the Franklinia branch that serves as the perch for Audubon’s painting of Bachman’s Warbler.
Bachman gave the specimens that he’d collected in 1832 to Audubon, who named the little songbird Vermivora bachmanii after his friend. First called Bachman’s Swamp-Warbler, the birds measured only four inches or so from tip to tail. They would not be seen again in the States for fifty years, when Americans began actively taking feathered specimens for museums and milliners. Between 1886 and 1892, collectors shot 192 of the diminutive warblers. Ornithologists must now rely more on paintings and blurred photographs than actual field encounters when describing plumage, and the closest they may ever come to the actual warblers are the preserved specimens, some of which could have been taken from the last remaining populations.
The collective nouns for a group of warblers are unsettling in their poetry: A confusion of warblers. A fall. A wrench.
Olive green with a yellow breast, the Bachman’s male distinguishes himself from similar warblers, like the Nashville and the Orange-Crowned, with a black, bib-like throat patch. A Bachman’s female is olive-backed as well but shows a paler lemon underbelly, lacking the black bib until it appears – faintly – as she ages. After reviewing 300 museum samples in the mid-1980’s, ornithologists Paul Hamel and Sidney Gauthreaux (neither of whom have seen or heard the bird in real life), emphasized slight variations in field marks – yellow in the male’s wing bend; a pale, not necessarily golden, eye ring on the female – with the aim of aiding birders in identification of this elusive warbler. To a non-scientist, perhaps this cataloguing of miniscule particularities seems desperate, a pointless last-ditch effort to assert the uniqueness of a species that is surely vanished from the earth. And yet, this work could be more than science: a requiem for the dead, or a leap of faith.
It’s not simply visual identification of plumage that makes sightings extremely rare and difficult to certify, though. Bachman’s Warbler lives – or lived – in the dense, lush swamps deep in the southeastern United States, a denizen of the southern Atlantic Coastal Plain. Bottomland forests of sweetgum, red oaks, dogwoods, hickories, and cypress once stretched for miles, a landscape that was home to tribes like the Seminole, Choctaw and Cherokee for centuries before European settlers arrived. The birds tucked their nests into the low, snarly tangles of blackberry, palmetto, and other brambly, vining foliage amidst mirroring pools of tannin-dark water and vast stands of Arundinaria gigantea – native bamboo groves called canebrakes. Bachman’s bill may be slightly curved to allow it better gleaning of cane leaves for seeds, caterpillars and ants, and our erratic encounters with the bird may be linked to the episodic cycles of productivity within the bamboo stands. If Bachman’s was indeed a bamboo specialist, that would place it – at least as far as museum collections of neotropical songbirds go – in rare company.
In the past century, the forests of the southeast have been industrially logged and the wetlands systematically drained, dammed and plugged up for agriculture and cattle grazing. The canebrakes of the coastal plain, like the grasslands of the North American prairie, were cleared out, paved over, and all but lost to ecological history. Arundinaria gigantea does not grow back quickly once it has been cut down. However, fire is crucial for cane productivity, and natural fires in the canebrakes were beneficial. The Cherokee knew this, and practiced their own methods of controlled burns. Within the last ten years, in the Qualla Boundary of western North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee have undertaken a comprehensive land survey to map potential river cane habitats and plant seedlings of river cane’s endangered sister plant, the butternut tree. Sustainably harvested, these plants are the raw materials for prized basketry, flutes, medicine, tools and woven mats. Could this restoration provide reliable economic benefits to the Cherokee as well as management implications for Bachman’s historical range?
Migrating Bachman’s Warblers kept to the very tops of cypress and sweetgum trees, singing as they passed over South Georgia and the Florida Keys from Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, the Carolinas, and Louisiana on their way to wintering grounds in Cuba. In the late 1800’s, Bachman’s was the seventh most common migratory bird on the lower Suwannee, Florida. By the early 1900’s, field biologists like Arthur Wayne (who had found the majority of known Bachman’s nests) began to notice a marked decline in all swamp-dwelling birds. This coincided with a reduction in nesting grounds for Bachman’s Warbler. Despite forest recovery in the latter half of the 20th century, Bachman’s is still the rarest of our American passerines, officially listed as Critically Endangered in 2012, and possibly extinct. Birders often report hearing male Bachman’s Warblers, but so far most claims have turned out to be mistakes; one variation of the Northern Parula’s song sounds incredibly like that of Bachman’s – the same buzzy, cicada-like trill. When sound recordings of Bachman’s Warbler are played during research outings, the other birds in the forest occasionally fall silent, perhaps as if wondering what strange, unknown visitor has suddenly arrived. Other times during playback of a Bachman’s call, a Northern Parula might appear.
No formal management plan exists for conservation action regarding Bachman’s Warbler. Two potential breeding sites were thought to exist prior to 2001: the bird’s former stronghold around I’On Swamp in the Francis Marion National Forest, and the Congaree Swamp National Monument in South Carolina. A habitat enhancement program in the Francis Marion found no Bachman’s Warblers utilizing those sites. Based on previous, plausible visual sightings as well as audial, in 2002 a team of ornithologists led by Craig Watson of the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture extensively surveyed likely habitats in the Congaree. Although field researchers logged ninety species of birds, Bachman’s Warbler was not among them. These scattered, miniscule remains of the canebrakes provide only a small glimpse of a once remarkably huge and complex ecosystem, and reflect our knowledge of its inhabitants.
Of Bachman’s winter habitat in Cuba, we know even less. The extensive clearing of lowlands for commercial sugarcane agriculture must have had its effects, as well as the severe hurricanes and storms which often sweep along the warbler’s narrow migration corridor. In 2002, a man in Guardalavaca, Cuba filmed a bird he identified as a Bachman’s Warbler and sent video clips to the Cornell Ornithology Lab. Cornell posted the clips on a website and invited feedback from the scientific community and the public. The video, grainy and inconclusive, is most likely that of a Cuban Golden Warbler. Even a 1988 sighting in Louisiana has never been confirmed, but is oft repeated on blog posts as the last known glimpse of a Bachman’s Warbler. Bachman’s, like the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, is a ghost bird of a prior era.
At the turn of the last century, Missouri businessman and amateur ornithologist Otto Widmann spent countless hours studying birds in the wild. He was the first to collect a Bachman’s nest and eggs, in 1897. In 1902, his house burned down, along with all his field notes and a draft manuscript of his Catalog of the Birds of Missouri, a culmination of 25 years of observation and writing. One story survives: In 1897, a female Bachman’s built a nest within reaching distance of Widmann’s observing point for a week without him noticing. Alas, no Bachman’s nest, a carefully shaped cup of cane leaves and pine needles holding 3 or 4 white eggs, delicately lined with lichen and Spanish moss, has been found since 1937, in Alabama.
So many questions remain unanswered. Why are the Bachman’s eggs white, a rare color with wood warblers? Was Bachman’s specific niche a microhabitat where the canebrakes merged into the forest? In analysis of the bird’s nest site selection, have we undervalued the importance of nearby water like the biodiversity-rich Carolina bays and pocosins? Were the hibiscus groves of lowland Cuba its ideal winter territory? Do we need to keep searching, more of us, the scattered gaps and edges that remain? To all but a few dedicated birders and scientists, Vermivora bachmanii may seem like just another drab warbler, indistinguishable from all the other yellow warblers, unremarkable in any aspect – one of many songbirds, heard no longer. Most people don’t even know how to pronounce the name – Backman’s – and its disappearance conjures no fantastic stories. Bachman’s Warblers did not once darken the skies like massive flocks of passenger pigeons. No one shot the last breeding pair of Bachman’s Warblers in a dramatic, tragic hunt.
There is no closure to Bachman’s greater story. It is the story of a population dying largely unnoticed. We neither knew, nor cared, what we would be losing when we destroyed the canebrakes, clearcut the trees, and converted the swamps to rice-growing estates. Nowadays, it’s not only outright habitat destruction that threatens species, but cumulative and insidious encroachment in the form of agricultural and highway runoff, power plant and pulp mill drainage, and invasive species. The Franklin tree that Maria Martin Bachman painted is now extinct in the wild.
There were two confirmed sightings of Bachman’s in Cuba in 1981 and 1984. Even more poignant, old film footage belonging to famed South Carolina ornithologist E. Burnham Chamberlain shows a male Bachman’s Warbler perched on a pine branch, open-beaked and warbling enthusiastically. The film has no sound. Perhaps these images truly are the last certain glimpses of Bachman’s Warblers, and forevermore we can only imagine them: flying singly above lowcountry plantations, flickering through understory thickets, seeking places to nest. Perhaps one or two of the eldest passed away silently amidst clusters of red hibiscus on Isla de la Juventud. Or maybe a lone family of Bachman’s remains in the undergrowth safety of a small unreachable Louisiana marsh, deliberately gleaning spiders from leaves or acrobatically clinging to cane stalks. Maybe the Qualla Boundary canebrakes are a harbinger of future restoration projects in Bachman’s original territories.
Mystery begets both hope and despair. We are left to wonder. We are given a chance to ensure that threatened songbirds like Kirtland’s Warbler avoid a similar fate. We are left thinking of the colors of Bachman’s Warbler. Ornithologist William Brewster, on a birding expedition to the Suwannee River in 1890, saw at least a thousand migrating warblers in a fifteen-acre area, and estimated that five percent of them were Bachman’s. Brewster admired one male’s characteristic song for a time – before shooting it for his collection. He described Bachman’s Warbler with the words dusky olive…deep lemon…light gamboge…ashy white…smoke-grey…purity of black.
Another term of venery: Behold, a bouquet of warblers. Will we ever see feathers so alive like this again?
Carrie Naughton is a freelance bookkeeper who writes speculative fiction, environmental essays, book reviews, and poetry. Her work can be read at WordsDance, Star*Line, Up The Staircase Quarterly, and NonBinary Review. Find her at carrienaughton.com – where she blogs frequently about whatever captures her interest.