Speaking of Nature: American redstart a ‘tiny but tough’ long-distance migrant

  • The female paused for just a moment to take a close look at me and I captured her portrait. The male of the species would have the same color pattern, but with black and bright orange feathers. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

  • This was the field mark that allowed my brain to come up with such a quick identification. The lemon-yellow panels against the medium-gray tail feathers were a dead giveaway. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 8/8/2021 5:00:20 PM

Over the past 24 years of writing about nature I have managed to focus on 184 different species of birds. Most of these can be found in North America with a very few exceptions that were generated by travel abroad. In many cases these species represented the “low-hanging fruit,” but an important thing to keep in mind is how much of a role luck has played in my efforts. Some “easy” species have proven elusive, while some “difficult” species have turned up in the right place at the right time.

As one might expect, I’ve covered the cooperative species multiple times each. These are birds easy to find and easily associated with certain times of year (think Canada goose and northern cardinal and you have the right idea). There are other species that I have only talked about a very few times, if not just once. This week I feature a second look at a species that I last covered 20 years ago.

The American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) is one of the 52 species of warblers that live in the United States. Like all of these species it is a small bird with what looks like a “delicate” build. Don’t let appearances fool you, however, because the American redstart is a long-distance migrant that will travel to the islands of the Caribbean, Central America and the northernmost nations of South America. I think the best description of this species might be, “Tiny but tough!”

I think it is also very important for me to acknowledge that the bird I am featuring in today’s photographs is an adult female, rather than an adult male. The American redstart is a species that exhibits a trait known as “sexual dimorphism,” which simply means that the two sexes have different appearances. The male is covered in black feathers with panels of orange, whereas the female shows the same pattern with gray and yellow. Twenty years ago it was a male redstart that was cooperative and last week it was a female, though I can’t honestly say that she was terribly cooperative.

I was sitting in an Adirondack chair at the southern edge of the large wet meadow that lies behind my house. I have carved out a little spot among the dogwoods at the edge of this meadow and placed the chair on a small platform there. This provides me with a view looking north across the meadow and a wonderful canopy of living vegetation to keep the direct sun off of me. Early in the morning the sun comes in from my right and as the day progresses the sun slowly moves upward and behind me. This provides outstanding lighting for photography.

The “trick” to nature photography is to simply put in the hours because the more time you spend outside the more likely you are to see something. With this in mind I head down to my “Thinking Chair” at least three times per week and sit there for a minimum of two hours per day. Early in the year, when the birds are breeding, it is fairly easy to locate interesting males because they make so much noise; more of a bird-listening exercise. Later in the year, however, it truly becomes an activity of bird watching. Calm mornings are best because there is no movement in the trees other than birds.

So there I was — sitting in my “Thinking Chair” and gazing out upon a perfect summer morning. A cloudless blue sky allowed plenty of light and a dead calm made sure that not a single leaf moved due to wind. There were several black-capped chickadees moving in the bushes around me because they were interested in the seeds that I had put out for them, but out of the corner of my eye I caught an image of a bird that was not a chickadee at all. I never got a complete look at the bird, but I saw a tail with two yellow “panels” and pure reflex allowed my brain to offer up an identification: “redstart!”

To test this feeling I opened up a birding app on my phone and played the song of an American redstart. In an instant this beautiful little female zipped over to see what all the fuss was about. She was in the process of hunting for food, but at least she was doing it within my field of view. Rather than waiting for the perfect shot I just started taking photos as fast as I could. One of them turned out to be a close approximation of my first sight of her with her tail fanned out. Then the “magic” happened. She paused to take a hard look at whatever it was that was making all of that odd noise (the shutter on my camera) and I snapped the portrait photo that I had been waiting for for two decades.

Done with her breeding season this little female is either on the move already, or preparing to move by fattening up. The American redstart is an insectivorous species and so the birds must fly south to those places where winter never reaches. They will eat the odd seeds and berries now and then, but the insects they rely on cannot withstand our northern winters. So, males and females, young and old will all have to fly hundreds to thousands of miles to find safety. Then, in the springtime, they will head back to North America for another breeding season.

If you have a little time to go outside and sit in a chair, then I would highly recommend it. The trick is to avoid bringing anything with you that will distract you from the simple pleasure of quietly watching the world around you. No books, no phones, no nothing! Let your mind wander as your eyes scan for little movements around you. It is almost certain that you will see something interesting eventually and if you are very lucky it might be a little female redstart preparing for a long, long journey to the south.


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