Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Black-Masked Rogue

Birders have a technique for getting a small hidden bird to show itself. It’s called ‘pishing.” Softly one repeats, “pish, pish, pish.” The pace can be slow, or fast, or changing, and the cadence can vary. Birds respond to pishing in one of three ways. They get scared, hide, or fly away. They ignore it. Or - the hoped for response - they become curious and come to check out the noise. Is it food? Is it danger? Or is it some silly creature with deformed goggle eyes?

Birders pish in the hope that the more elusive birds in the neighborhood will move to a more visible perch, if only for a second or two. Often that is all that is needed to make a visual identification and have an “oh wow” moment.

Chickadees almost always respond to pishing, often coming quickly from a long distance. So do Blue Jays. And there are other birds that can be depended on to respond dependably and quickly. This column is mostly about one of those quick responders.

I was along an old forest service road in the Green Mountains. A twenty yard swath of brush ran along one side of the narrow lane. On the opposite side, young spruce trees formed a thick wall against the forest. Hidden in the spruce, I heard a Magnolia Warbler singing. I hoped I could lure it into some low branches for a good view, and perhaps a photo op. So I pished: “pish ... pish ... pish ... pish.” Almost immediately there was skulking movement in shrubby edge and low spruce branches. I pished some more, and glimpsed a rapid movement. I followed the movement, still pishing, hoping that my quarry would pause. I stared at the place where the bird last moved, and then the inquisitive little bird appeared - but not the Magnolia Warbler I sought. The black-masked rogue stared at me, head a-cock. Then he dropped out of sight in the thick branches.

In a hundred acre clearing filled with wild blueberry bushes, tangles of blackberries and raspberries, and scattered willow bushes, I wanted to get a good look at the uncommon Lincoln Sparrow. I had heard it a few days before and had a so-so look (sometimes referred to as a BVD look - better view desired). When I saw a brownish bird flit in a bush, I suspected Lincoln Sparrow. So I pished:  “pish ... pish ... pish ... pish.” Almost immediately there was skulking movement through the shrubby willows. I followed the tiny bird as it drew a half circle around me, flying fast from bush to bush. My pishing drew it closer ... until finally he showed himself. Head a-cock, the black-masked rogue stared at me. Then he dropped out of sight in the thick willows.

Downstream from the old, abandoned beaver pond, was an open area that had once been cleared by the beaver. Now it is overgrown with willows and cherry trees, and century old apple trees. The whole area was surrounded with leafy forest. It was perfect habitat for the black-necklaced Canada Warbler. A few days earlier I had been in this same spot with a friend when we heard it sing. We had good looks at this beautiful wood warbler. Now I was back in quest of a photo opportunity look.

I heard the Canada Warbler sing. So I pished:  “pish ... pish ... pish ... pish.” Almost immediately there was skulking movement, and I followed that movement. But by now, you know that the first responder to my pishing was the black-masked little rogue. Head a-cock, he stared at me, then disappeared in the thicket.


The black-masked little rogue is, of course, the Common Yellowthroat, a member of the American Wood Warbler family (Parulidae) and the only member of its Genus found in North American. Its scientific name was given to it by Karl von Linne, the eighteenth century German who developed the Linneaus system for scientific classification and naming. With so much to do, he quickly assigned the Common Yellowthroat to the Genus, Geothlypis, roughly meaning a kind of ground finch. Its species name is trichas, meaning a thrush. The Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas, is not a finch, sometimes puts its nest on the ground, and is certainly not a thrush. But Karl’s misnomer survives.

The Common Yellowthroat is common. It can be found in tangled shrubbery along a river, in dense cover along the edge of swampy woodland, in the matted reeds of a swamp, in the grasses and cattails of tidal wetlands, in woods and orchards and bushy pastures.

“To make his acquaintance,” wrote Edward Forbush, “one has only to visit his favorite haunts ... when presto! Up bobs that masquerading scrap of animated feathers, nervously voicing his alarm with a variety of scolding chirps and chattering notes, his black eyes sparkling with excitement. Suddenly he explodes in a vigorous outburst of song, as if to inquire ‘whatcha-see, whatch-see, whatcha-see’ and darting impatiently here and there in the low undergrowth, plainly announces that his privacy has been disturbed; his curiosity and indignation are soon over, and, scurrying to the shelter of his retreat, he leaves the cause of his disquietude flooded with emotions of surprise and delight.”


The black-masked Common Yellowthroat is a warbler that acts like a wren, even to cocking its tail upward  ... that is, when it is not cocking its head at some ridiculous pisher who is disturbing its peace. The male wears the mask; the female is an olive-yellow bundle who chips and head a-cocks as readily as her mate, but without the accompanying “witch-adee-witch-adee,” or “whatcha-see, whatcha-see,” or whatever local dialect he is singing.

Sometimes when I am trying to lure in some tree top warbler or vireo, and have the yellowthroat appear instead, I get slightly irritated. When I skip through my irritation and look at the black-masked little rogue, I immediately see that my irritation with him (because he is not the bird I wanted) is nothing compared to his irritation with me. His head a-cock, and his tail pointed up, all  tell me that I have no business in his neighborhood and if he was a half ounce bigger, he’d teach me a lesson.

Sometimes I do my birding in busy birding places where there are lots of other birders around. And sometimes, I will see one of these birders intently searching for the next bird to add to his day list. I will overhear him mutter, “Phooey, just another yellowthroat.”

When I hear something like that, I can’t help it. I leap to judgment, silently thinking that there is a person who takes his birding much too seriously. I was looking for the Magnolia Warbler, the Lincoln Sparrow, and the Canada Warbler, and each time and place I was first subjected to the critical scrutiny of the black-masked little rogue. Each time I smiled.


There are some things you should never get tired of. The Common Yellowthroat is one of those things. As he dropped into the thicket by the old beaver pond, he underscored this truth as he proclaimed: “Don’t-cha-know, don’t-cha-know.”

By the way, when I looked up from the low tangle where he had inspected me, the black-necklaced Canada Warbler was looking down at me. Good birding.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! A beautiful essay. It's true - so much of birding is the serendipity of seeing what turns up, and finding joy and beauty in those unexpected finds. I had a similar experience with a Common Yellowthroat last week; was looking for the Redstarts I had head, and got a family of the masked bandits. They are so pretty. If they were rarer, we'd seek them out eagerly. Thanks for a wonderful essay to start my day.

Anonymous said...

IF there is one thing better than hearing the yellow throat, it's seeing it! AND even better--it's been doing it with you all these years!

Felicia said...

Lovely write-up. I never get tired of Common Yellowthroats either. One of my friends says there's no such thing as a boring bird, and the more I bird, the more I think he's right!

Chris said...

Beautiful post Chris!!! Full of information and beautiful pictures! I especially love the last one.

Bird Girl said...

Funny how we humans take the 'familiar' for granted...I'm guilty of "oh it's just a common yellowthroat" or there's that Indigo bunting again." I remember a time when I would trade a body part just to SEE an Indigo bunting. Thanks for the gentle reminder that we should always appreciate these marvelous creatures! I enjoyed your post and photography!

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