The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Neotropical Migrants are Like Returning Friends
by Ro Wauer

Each spring my yard becomes a center for many of the northbound migrants, flying about the vegetation in search for insects and bathing in one of my birdbaths. There are times that a dozen or more of these tiny colorful warblers are present at once. But their activity pattern usually is greatest in mid-morning, like they spend the first hours of daylight feeding, and then they need to bath. And some of those individuals seem to thoroughly enjoy splashing about. Sometimes four or five individuals will crowd in together.

The most abundant warbler species this year and each of the last several years has been the Nashville warbler, with its bright yellow underside, brown back, and gray head with bright white eyeings. Next in abundance, perhaps, is the rather poorly marked orange-crowned warbler; all yellowish-brown except for an orange cap that is rarely obvious. Its orange cap shows best while bathing. One of the most contrasting warblers is the black-throated green warbler, with its black throat, yellow face and greenish ear patch, olive green back, and white wing bars. The black and white warblers that also enjoy a good bath are the black-and-white warbler. This white species, with a black throat and black streaks, has a distinct habit of walking up and down tree trunks. And the little warbler with a yellow throat and chest, with a reddish-black chest band, white belly, gray head with broken white eye rings, and an olive back is the northern parula.

Some of the other warblers seen in my yard this year have included the common yellowthroat, with its yellow underside and black mask; the much larger yellow-breasted chat, with its bright yellow underparts and dark brown back and head, except for its white spectacles; several yellow-rumped warbler; and two additional species that I do not see every year, but are rather special. Most exciting was the worm-eating warbler, a little bird with buffy underparts, brownish-olive back, and buff-colored head with bold dark stripes. It appeared at my birdbath for only a few minutes before it continued on its way toward its ancestral nesting grounds to the northeast.

I found two hooded warblers in a tall brushy area along the edge of my yard. They, along with several resident species, including cardinals, chickadees, titmice and mockingbirds, were agitated about something in or about that site. They all were scolding and raising the roof. Hearing the uproar, I slowly approached, trying to see what was going on. They all were facing the same way, as if there scolding a predator perched in the tangle of vegetation. They seemed to ignore my presence, suggesting they were far more concerned about what was present in the brush than in me. I never did see what they were fussing about, probably a snake, but during the activity I did get some super looks at a male hooded warbler.

It is difficult not to admire a male hooded warbler in breeding plumage. Its coal black hood is divided by its bright yellow face and forehead; its dark eye seems to punctuate that pattern. Its belly is also bright yellow, and its back and tail are olive-brown, and when excited like it was it spreads its tail so that the white edges are obvious.

Many of the northbound warblers are singing, at least partial songs. Their full songs may not occur until they have reached their breeding grounds and begin to defend a territory. Their presence in my yard and other sites along their migration route, give joy to all of us who appreciate each of these little episodes of our natural world.