I’m often asked where I find inspiration to write a different birding column every week. Frankly, some days all I have to do for inspiration is sit on my porch and do nothing. That is well within my skill set. In fact, I have a black belt in porch-sitting.
It helps that my porch overlooks a lake. I didn’t even have to leave my Adirondack chair to identify two surf scoters floating just beyond my dock last week — the 150th species of bird that I have seen on or near my yard. Surf scoters are sea ducks that nest in northern Canada and winter along the Maine coast. There are thousands on Maine’s saltwater, but they’re only seen on fresh water when they briefly touch down in migration. These two were the first I have seen on the lake in 18 years. Anything can happen in migration season.
Most warblers are gone now, save for the hardiest of the bunch: yellow-rumped warblers. Not only are many of them still around, but they‘re also not shy about telling you where they are. All warblers make tiny call notes, which keeps them in touch with their flock as they forage in the treetops. The call note of a yellow-rump is unique. It sounds like “quip” or “twit.” When you get familiar with the sound, you become aware of just how many are still present in mid-October.
Typically, birds that migrate the farthest leave the earliest. Warblers bound for Central and South America are mostly gone by the end of September. Warblers that winter in the United States linger longer. Yellow-rumps barely leave the state. They are abundant along the mid-Atlantic coast in winter, from Connecticut southward. Some have even been known to winter in Maine, and even as far north as Newfoundland. During a Christmas Bird Count on Matinicus a couple of years ago, I encountered two on a frigid Jan. 2.
Even though warblers are primarily insect-eaters, many can supplement their diets with fruit and weed seeds. Yellow-rumps are champions at switching diets, and they can subsist on berries for long periods. They are the only warblers able to digest the waxy coatings on bayberries and wax myrtles, which are found in abundance along the yellow-rumps’ favorite coastal wintering grounds in the mid-Atlantic states. They even relish the berries from poison ivy and poison oak.
Yellow-rumped warblers are also among the most versatile foragers for insects. Most small songbirds hunt insects primarily by gleaning — poking among the leaves and needles, while looking for insects clinging to them. A few warblers are better at hawking — flying out to catch insects on the wing. Yellow-rumps are equally adept at both. This ability to access more food helps them stay in Maine longer, even after some of the insect life has started to go dormant for the winter.
The fall plumage of a yellow-rumped warbler is annoying. It fools a lot of people. In spring, they are brightly colored. In autumn, they are dull, dull, dull. The yellow rump is about the only bright hue left on the bird, and it’s only visible when the bird is flying away. There may be a yellowish tinge in the flanks of a bird that is facing you, but most of the breast is a drab white with some indistinct streaks. The streaks may look like an inverted U. A closer look might reveal a half-ring around each eye.
Fortunately, yellow-rumped warblers are immensely curious. They approach readily when “pished in.” Pishing is the art of making strange noises that resemble the complaints of chickadees and titmice. Try it. Just hiss a pish-pish-pish sound through pursed lips. Many birders have their favorite variations on pishing, such as making a loud squeaking sound by kissing the back of their hands. Whatever works for you.
Amusingly, yellow-rumps have a tendency to chase each other more than most warblers do. They will also chase nonrelated warblers, some species more than others. Whenever I see a warbler chasing another warbler, it’s often a yellow-rump bullying its way through the treetops.
Although yellow-rumps are a common breeder in Maine, two-thirds of the entire population nest in the boreal forests of Canada. Many of these will keep trickling through in fall migration. By my reckoning, you’ve still got a couple more weeks to enjoy yellow-rumped warblers before most of them have departed for Maryland.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading back out to the porch for more inspiration.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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