They call this the land of opportunity. Which is confusing, being as it is a country with amongst the lowest social mobility and highest levels of income inequality in the developed world. So it can’t mean what I thought it did. No, in this case ‘opportunity’ must mean ‘the opportunity to fill your face with the most bewildering array of foodstuffs ever assembled by mankind’. Honestly. It takes at least 15 minutes to walk past the ice cream section of the supermarket. You can purchase, should you wish to, coffee that tastes of pumpkin pie, as well as pie that tastes of coffee and coffee-flavoured pumpkin. Probably.
Then there are the chips. In Britain, ‘crisps’, as we refer to them, come in four basic kinds: regular, posh, pretend posh and novelty.* All have Nearctic ecological equivalents, but chip evolution here has clearly taken a multiplicity of turns, unfolding into variety upon variety. Much like the science fiction ‘meal-in-a-pill’, only in snack food form, there’s no flavour craving that mightn’t be satisfied by a cellophane-wrapped packet of something crunchy. Crippled as I usually am by indecision, food shopping here would likely take me several days. I’d have to take supplies with me just to go foraging for supplies. I feel overwhelmed just writing about it.
So naturally, I do as I always do and turn to the natural world for solace. But there, alas, my bewilderment is made complete. There are at least 25 pages of warblers in the National Geographic field guide to North American birds, and I only have the Eastern region edition. So those 25 pages are for just half of the continent. It takes me a good half hour just to look through this dazzling menu of magnificently, exuberantly coloured entrees. And with final, devastating irony, almost all of the dishes on offer come with a side of chips.
For that is all the American warblers ever say. “Calls include a dry / rich / fruity / sharp / resounding / salty / nautical / cheesy ‘chip’ ”, advises the guide. Or sometimes ‘tchick’ or ‘tsip’, or ‘tseep’, which are also all ‘chip’, when you think about it. I believe one species says ‘wenk’, but this is surely a mere exception that proves the rule. For the poor confused European birder, used to a warbler family** of a crisp-like four basic types (chiffchaff-esque, whitethroat-esque, reed-warbler-esque and novelty) which tend to sound fairly distinctive, at least enough to narrow down, the American wood warblers are at once thrilling and incredibly frustrating.
We’re reduced to jabbering wrecks, heads turning rapidly this way and that like a cat on the prowl, attempting in vain to locate every small fluttering thing that sounds like it might be saying ‘chip’. Though the fall and immature plumages are said to be drab, the untold richness of potential ticks has us champing at the bit, or possibly our binocular straps. When one finally does get a good look at a bird, for say three seconds, it turns out that what is meant by ‘drab’ is actually ‘incredibly beautiful’. Sure, the colours are a bit muted compared to some of the summer plumages illustrated in the guide (and the very small handful of species I saw in immaculate breeding dress last May), but remain a symphony of gold, buttercup, olive, grass, lemon, lime, coal-black, cream, buff-brown and blue-grey.
Since the start of our latest visit stateside on Friday, I’ve seen Blackburnian warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, black-throated blue warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black and white warbler, magnolia warbler, common yellowthroat, northern parula and American redstart, without even trying that hard. No 12-hour-a-day bird-athons, anyway. I could possibly add blackpoll, pine and prothonotary warblers to that list, but not without a second look or a friendly experienced hand helping to convince me those are the species I was seeing. (Did I mention that obtaining a good view is near impossible, and that even when an inexperienced observer such as myself gets one we’re often still entirely unsure of what we’re looking at?) So let me finish by saying this. Americans: with all due respect, you can keep your junk food.*** But oh, wow, are you ever blessed with warblers. Their diversity is dazzling. And even the ‘drab’ ones are not half bad looking.
*For English readers, examples would be ‘Walker’s, Kettle Chips, Walker’s Sensations and Monster Munch.’ Really, that’s all there is to it. You can designate almost any crunchy snack to one of these four categories, or perhaps a hybrid thereof. Did you know I was the Linnaeus of the crisp world?
**Science pedants: I am well aware that the European and American warblers are not at all closely related.
***Having said that, I will take you up on Ben & Jerry’s. And anything involving both chocolate and peanut butter. And Swedish Fish: they taste mighty strange, but I can’t argue with the name. Probably a few I’m forgetting. Anybody else hungry?