Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Every Warbler Tells A Story

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: Here in northwestern Ohio, “the Warbler Capital of the World,” the warblers are just beginning to show up. They will be flooding through here, in dizzying numbers and variety, in just a couple of weeks. Right now, we’re in the peak stage of eager anticipation for these tiny, active, colorful birds.

Our friend Liz McQuaid recently had a Yellow-throated Warbler in her yard in the Cleveland area, a little east of here. (Not this one; the bird in the photo above, poking about in Spanish Moss, is one that Kimberly and I photographed in Texas.) Yellow-throated Warbler is mainly a southern bird, uncommon this far north, but what was really fascinating about Liz’s bird was that it was coming to her suet feeder. Warblers in general are not feeder birds. Although Pine Warblers often come to suet feeders, especially in winter, this is not a well-known behavior for the Yellow-throated Warbler.

Hearing about the feeding behavior of this individual set me to thinking about warblers in general, and about how each species has its own distinct personality. When I was a kid, struggling to learn the warblers, I somehow got the idea that they were all pretty much the same aside from their markings – as if Nature had taken a basic warbler outline and filled it in repeatedly with different colors. Once you get to know them, though, you realize that’s not the case. Each warbler is unique, with its own surprising life story.

Take a good look at a Yellow-throated Warbler and ignore its yellow throat, and you’ll notice that it has a long, strong bill for a warbler. That bill shape is a key to its feeding behavior. On the nesting grounds, it spends a lot of time poking into crevices in bark, or into clusters of pine needles, in search of insects. And on the wintering grounds it searches in a wider variety of locations.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I spent a lot of time in Mexico every winter: travel there was cheap, the weather was warm, and the birding was superb. So a lot of my early experience with Yellow-throated Warbler was on the wintering grounds. This bird spends the winter in various habitats, including some areas of upland pine forest, but the situation where I found it most reliably was in palm trees. Whenever I checked out a grove of coconut palms or other palms, as likely as not there would be a Yellow-throated Warbler poking about among the bases of the fronds.

But the other typical location for it was more surprising. This was far and away the most likely warbler to be seen foraging around manmade objects. Once when friends and I were in Catemaco, Veracruz, for the Christmas Bird Count, we would see a Yellow-throated Warbler foraging around the street lights outside the hotel every morning, no doubt finding insects that had been attracted to the lights overnight. On other trips, I’ve seen these enterprising warblers searching around the light fixtures at gas stations in Yucatan and Tabasco, and around the edges of hotel windows in Chiapas and on Cozumel Island. Plenty of other warbler species were wintering in these same regions, but the Yellow-throated was the only one exploiting these manmade bug-attractors.
 
So the Yellow-throated Warbler at Liz’s feeder may have just been exercising the natural propensity of the species to check out human artifacts. Or maybe the other warblers just sent it on ahead to remind us that every warbler is different, every species deserves to be appreciated for its own unique character.
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