Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Black-masked Warbler

I drove slowly along the refuge road at Brigantine on the New Jersey coast, watching the small birds popping up from the reeds and grasses and disappearing again quickly. Most were Song Sparrows still in the early stages of their annual breeding cycle - the males singing and defending their territory - the females building nests. Between scanning the mud flats for shorebirds, I was checking out these small birds, looking for the Seaside Sparrow or the more elusive Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Occasionally I saw the Seaside Sparrow clinging to the top of a broken reed and singing his weak imitation of a Red-winged Blackbird.

A small brown bird flew across the narrow road, its flight and profile different from the ever-present Song Sparrow. It grabbed onto the top of a brown grass stalk. I grabbed my binoculars, hoping for a brief glimpse of the secretive Sharp-tailed before it dropped out of sight. The brown-backed bird turned, and I saw a bright yellow breast. From the side of its head, across both eyes and brow, it wore a black mask.  He quivered with attention as he surveyed his neighborhood, then sang  out with “witchity-witchity-witchity.

In the moist, young forest along the Wissahickon River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I heard several warblers and vireos singing and calling in the understory and the canopy overhead. They were moving slowly as they foraged among the leaves. Glimpses were brief, only enough to know that a bird had gone to a new perch or new branch. Softly, I tried to call them down - “phish, phish, phish.” The strange sound will sometimes attract the birds. But this day, they were unimpressed and out of sight.

I tried again - “phish ... pish ... pish.” There was movement in the bushes. I watched, saw movement again. My binoculars focused on the small bird whose curiosity got the better of his hunger, or caution. He wore a black mask above his yellow chin and breast. He chipped loudly as he checked out the disturbance, then dropped into the thick protection of the bush. From deep in the tangle, I heard “witch-i-ty ... witch-i-ty ... witch-i-ty.”

Female yellowthroat also investigates disturbances

Across the road near my home are the remnants of a pasture edge. A few young maples and oaks rise above the melange of cherry, honeysuckle and other small trees and bushy plants. Walking along the road, I heard a Chestnut-sided Warbler singing from a tree top. I saw him moving along a branch that had not yet fully leafed out. He paused, lifted his head and sang his “pleased-pleased-pleased-to-meetcha.”

I wanted a closer look at the Chestnut-sided, but had no binoculars with me. So I tried to “phish” him down. He moved immediately, disappearing into the foliage above, and sang again. From the thicket of roses, willows, and honeysuckle, a small bird came to inspect the neighborhood disturbance. To emphasize his territorial prerogatives, he cocked his short tail up and raised his black-masked head. “Watcha-see, watcha-see, watcha-see.”

The small black-masked bird is common in coastal marshes, in the brushy edges of fields, in alder swamps, in the understory of open forests, in open wetlands, in the shrubbery along streams. It is commonly known as the Common Yellowthroat.

The Common Yellowthroat is common in numbers, but uncommon in much of its behavior. The yellowthroat is a warbler, a rather stubby and short-tailed warbler. It is a nonconformist - the only warbler who nests in open marsh, but also content to nest wherever it can find relatively moist and dense habitat.

Watch the behavioral antics of the black-masked Common Yellowthroat, and you might think you are watching a wren. He has the cocked-up tail, the quivering intensity, the curiosity, and the pugnacity that is commonly associated with the wren family. All of this is markedly uncommon in the warbler family. The Common Yellowthroat is a very uncommon type of warbler.

As ubiquitous as the Common Yellowthroat is (there is hardly a day of birding during the summer when I don’t see or hear him) he is one of my favorite birds. When he pops out of the thicket and complains about my intrusion on his peace, I can only smile ... and apologize for having disturbed him.

Forbush captured the appeal of the Common Yellowthroat as succinctly as any writer: “To make his acquaintance 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, ... and darting impatiently here and there in the low undergrowth, plainly announces that his privacy has been disturbed; but 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 Yellowthroat captivates one’s fancy.”

At dusk, I heard the “tu-tu-tu ... tu-tu-tu” of a Black-billed Cuckoo. Stalking the sound, I determined that it was coming from somewhere in the mid-branches of a maple tree. I peered into the dark branches, circled around the tree, searching for the bird, but the fading light of the day rendered the search futile. Finally, I gave up and retreated.

From somewhere in the brushy edge near the water, I heard the New England dialect of the yellowthroat teasing me - “watcha-see ... watcha-see ... watcha-see.”
“Not much tonight, my friend,” I said.

The birding is always good when the Common Yellowthroat is around.


Dan Huber said...

nice post and wonderful photos Chris.

eileeninmd said...

Beautiful warbler and great captures, Chris!


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