Quiet, small, beautiful
Bill Danielson photo
The male common yellowthroat is easy to identify because of his black mask.
Bill Danielson photo
The female common yellowthroat is a study in the greens and yellows found in leaves.
Bill Danielson photo
I only found this tiny yellowthroat fledgeling on June 25 because it was calling for food from its parents.
The comforting thing about the passage of time is that many things stay constant from year to year. The constant speed of the Earth in its orbit around the sun produces seasons of predictable duration in a pattern that is as familiar as breathing. Here in the temperate forests of North America, we can feel the pulsing of seasonal change in our bones.
The reassuring feeling of the predictability of the seasons is accentuated by subtle differences that are produced by the random motion of everything in the world. The trees are rooted in the ground, but the birds, mammals and insects that populate the forests and fields move in unpredictable directions from moment to moment; never exactly repeating anything even if they do submit to much larger trends.
This truth came crashing down upon my consciousness on Sunday morning while I was down in the meadow trying to get a handle on the status of the bird community. Migration is upon us and many species have already made their moves. I was simply trying to detect the presence of whatever regulars might still be present even if they weren’t advertising themselves with song. It was a wonderful way to spend what turned out to be a particularly lovely morning.
As I explored the various trails that I have maintained in the tall grasses and thickets of my backyard, I kept my ears peeled for the slightest hints that birds might be skulking about. So little noise is made at this time of year that I also had to make sure that I scanned the landscape with my binoculars from time to time, hoping for a glimpse of movement that might betray a quiet bird. I managed to spot a flicker in this manner, but the detection of most birds was still done by ear.
I heard the quiet “mew” of a catbird and managed to spot an adult in the low branches of a small tree before it plunged back into the undergrowth. I heard the “chink” call of a towhee and was delighted to catch sight of a rather robust looking adult male. I found a group of juvenile song sparrows, a small flock of robins and even managed to catch the sound of a perturbed house wren from somewhere in the underbrush. All of these were species that I had seen earlier in the year.
Then, off to the east beyond the edge of my property, I heard the faint yet unmistakable song of a common yellowthroat. Imagine a bird’s voice repeating the word yellowthroat three times and you’ve got the idea of what this sounds like; three distinct notes with the first the loudest and highest in pitch while the other two are delivered with equal volume, but descending in pitch.
This song was also very familiar to me, but as I stood there in the field, it dawned on me that I hadn’t managed to see a single yellowthroat all year. In fact, even hearing them was something that I didn’t do very often. I tried to decide if it was the birds or me that had caused this to happen and I simply couldn’t come up with a definitive answer. Somehow, a bird that was as common and dependably seen as a crow might be had gone virtually undetected. It was odd.
The common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) is a member of the wood warbler family, which is filled with small, energetic birds that migrate every year. Even for a warbler, the common yellowthroat is on the small side, reaching a full body length of only 5 inches. A black-capped chickadee is only a quarter-inch longer, but has a much chunkier appearance and a slightly shorter, thicker beak.
The common yellowthroat is probably the easiest warbler to identify because of its distinctive “Lone Ranger” mask. The problem with this feature is the fact that only the males have it. The female, which does have a yellow patch on her throat in the same spot as the male, wears a plumage of olive-yellow feathers that makes disappearing into the brushy habitat they favor as simple as closing your eyes. As long as they are quiet, common yellowthroats might just as well not exist.
The western half of my lower field would best be described as “old field” habitat. What had once been maintained as a hay field has been allowed to grow in for a decade or two and the result is a mixture of tall grasses, goldenrods and shrubs. I actually have to bring a brush hog in to discourage some of the brush before there isn’t any open space left at all. This is exactly the type of habitat that common yellowthroats look for in the breeding season.
Like most Neotropical migrants, they are pressed for time when they arrive at our latitude, so they don’t mess around with overly elaborate nests. Cup-shaped and close to the ground, the nest is quickly built by the female alone. She then lays a clutch of three to five eggs and is responsible for all of the incubation duties for about 12 days. Meanwhile, the male is busy defending his territory and ensuring that there will be a secure foraging area for both his mate and their fledgelings.
Once the chicks hatch, the male will pitch in with food deliveries to his growing chicks. Insects are the chief source of food for warblers, but spiders are also taken whenever they can be found. Once the chicks fledge (about 10 days after they hatch), the male takes over more and more responsibility for them while the female starts up another nest.
Back in 2009, I had a rather magical day at the end of June when I managed to capture images of both a male and female yellowthroat within moments of one another. Then, in 2010, I managed to stumble upon a common yellowthroat fledgeling that was calling hungrily from the tall weeds by the side of one of my trails. Put them together and you get a glimpse of what life is like for these birds at the very beginning of the summer.
Years later, the pattern must be the same, but I was stunned when I realized that I had managed to go all summer without seeing even a single yellowthroat. They’ve been down the hill, about a hundred yards from my house, and they’ve lived out their lives virtually undetected. I definitely have to do better next year.
There is still ample opportunity for me to finally catch sight of a yellowthroat in the coming weeks. As the fall migration picks up, there will be a great deal of activity down in my field and I only have to make sure that I get out and keep my eyes and ears open. Adult birds will be outnumbered by the young of the year and the younger birds are the ones that tend to be the most curious.
If you manage to get out and look for some migrating warblers yourself, I want you to keep one idea in the back of your mind. More than half of the birds on the move will be less than 6 months old. They may be starting on a journey that will take them a thousand miles to the south to parts unknown but, with luck, they will be back next year.
Imagine how difficult it would be for you to make such a journey. Where would you stay, what would you eat and how would you pay for it? Small birds may not be as smart as humans, but their accomplishments are all the more wondrous when you consider what they are capable of.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com