If you only bird watch in your own backyard you can really miss some of nature’s most interesting creatures. And you don’t really need to go that far to see them. There are so many beautiful birds that live in our neighborhoods, if not directly in our yard. One perfect example is the Common Yellowthroat.
The Common Yellowthroat is found in open fields and marshes, usually near water. Within that range they are highly adaptable. Their choice of habitat is probably greatly affected by their diet of insects, which is also a reason why you won’t see these little guys visiting your feeders.
Fairly small at five inches, they stick to vines, reeds and bushes with heavy vegetation, making them more difficult to spot. They also hop around fairly quickly. According to The Birds of New Jersey, Common Yellowthroats are one of the most common breeding birds in the state, spending their summers here. You couldn’t prove it by me. Another book described them as “secretive,” which I think is an accurate description, and goes a long way to explain my relatively few sightings. I always feel extra pleased when I am able to spot, identify and photograph one of these little guys before he disappears from view. Most advice seems to agree that learning to recognize the call of the Common Yellowthroat is your best approach to more successful spotting. If you would like to hear its “witchety-witchety-witchety song” you can hear some clips here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Yellowthroat/sounds
If you can get a clear visual, identification is usually a no-brainer. Their backs are what the field guides describe as an “olive brown,” but what I would refer to as a mustard brown. They have a relatively large patch of bright yellow on their throat and breast, which terminates into a white belly. The male has one feature which distinguishes him very easily from his female counterpart, and most other birds his size, a black mask across his eyes, outlined in white. Imagine the lone ranger in bird form. If you can see a Common Yellowthroat in profile, you will probably notice his thin pointed black beak.
The Common Yellowthroat have a lot of time over the summer to hop around in the bushes looking for insects. They spend less than a month caring for their three to five babies, with the female incubating the nest for eleven to twelve days and the pair feeding their young for about ten days. This fairly quick turnover allows the Common Yellowthroat to have two broods each breeding season. That being said, their young remain dependent on their parents longer than is the case with most warblers.
So next time you are on a walk, and you hear a rustle in the reeds, keep an eye out for the masked ranger of the marsh, the Common Yellowthroat!
Exactly a year about, I found myself camping with a friend in Rhode Island. We were staying just over the Connecticut border in Burlingame State Campground. It was a lovely spot and great for outdoor activities, with the campsite right on a small lake. One day we decided to leave the campground for a hike at the nearby Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, which encompasses 787 acres, is home to roughly three hundred bird species, over forty mammal species and twenty reptile and amphibians. The habitats included within the borders of the refuge include fields, shrublands, woodlands, fresh and saltwater ponds and sandy beaches and dunes. What makes it extra special is that this refuge is the only undeveloped coastal salt pond in the whole state of Rhode Island. For we two-legged mammals, the refuge also provides roughly three miles of nature trails, including two observation platforms.
When we arrived at the refuge it was late morning. The day was already very hot. As we set out on the trail, it was amazing how green everything appeared. As we got closer to the water, many of the trees grew in curved and sprawling directions rather than heading straight up to the sky. The appearance of dry stone walls here and there added to one’s impression of a mystical, otherworldly atmosphere. You felt that seeing a fairy or a leprechaun wouldn’t be that out of place in these woods.
When we did spot some movement in the trees, it turned out not to be a fairy after all. Rather a lone Cedar Waxwing was hoping around the branches, either snacking or collecting some material for its nest. Always easy to identify with its distinct body type, black mask and yellow tail tip, this Cedar Waxwing was so busy, it made no attempt to hide from us.
Further down the trail we saw another flash of movement, this time a brighter, yellow flash. A Yellow Warbler perched on a branch just long enough for us to get a decent look at it and snap a few photos before it was off again, a bundle of energy and activity.
At this point the land around the trail became noticeably narrower, as we approached the peninsula where the Osprey Point observation platform was located. We noticed that the water had a foggy haze over it, helping to further enhance that mystical atmosphere we had begun to sense earlier. Unfortunately it also negatively affected our visibility.
Once up on the wooden observation platform we were confronted by a rather large bush or shrub, which had used the man-made platform as a trellis to allow it to reach even further into the air, toward the sun. But while the vegetation obscured our view even more, it was itself a haven for many of the smaller birds that love that kind of covering. A Song Sparrow was the first to show himself to us, belting out his song with great enthusiasm. Rustling in another part of the bush revealed a male Common Yellowthroat who came into view only long enough for me to begin lifting my camera before he hurried back into the network of vines and leaves, away from sight. However, after a few minutes, a much less jumpy female Common Yellowthroat came into view. She was much less skiddish than her male counterpart and I was able to get some very clear photos of her as she gleamed among the flowers.
Extending our gaze beyond the vegetation, we were able to spot one Double-Crested Cormorant, fishing in the brackish water. Additional movement on the water’s surface caught our eyes. But what we saw was definitely not a bird. It took us a few minutes of guessing before it came close enough for us to realize we were looking at an otter. Whether it was a river or sea otter is difficult to tell, but it was probably a river otter, as this was a fresh water pond. It turned out to be one of several that we saw when we started looking closer. They appeared to be bringing building materials from deeper water in toward shore, possibly to build a nest. They were much bigger than I expected.
After watching the otters for quite a long time, we headed back on the trail and went to the second observation platform, Otter Point. There the fog was just as thick, but the vegetation was a bit thinner. We watched a pair of Canada Geese make their way slowly across the water, when we saw a large bird fly in and land on the naked branch of a tree across the water from us. After a few minutes the Osprey flew off, caught a fish and then returned to the same perch and began to eat it. The irony was not lost on us that we saw otters at Osprey Point and an Osprey at Otter Point.
The Osprey’s meal reminded us that we were ready for lunch ourselves, so we started to head back along the trail. Emerging from the woods, the trail skirts the edges of a large, open grass field. On one of the only trees in the area, a gnarly looking fruit tree, we noticed a Tree Swallow. He was most likely resting after having flown repeatedly over the field gathering the many insects that were hovering in the thick and humid air.
Before reaching the car, the trail took us alongside the Farm Pond, a scenic little body of water, covered in vegetation. Getting closer to look for fish or turtles, we spotted several frogs floating among the lily pads. Most likely American Bullfrogs, these frogs floated below the water’s surface, allowing only their eyes, and sometime the tips of their noses to emerge above. Having spotted several frogs, we once again headed for the car. We didn’t make if far before we were distracted by the rustling of leaves high up in a maple tree on the opposite shore. A quick look through my lens revealed a rather noisy female Baltimore Oriole, picking at something, possibly some tasty insects or sap. Having seen her eating confirmed that we were past ready for lunch, and we practically marched back to the car to go out in search of our own sustenance.
There is just something about the color yellow. While some birds carry their yellow plumage more subtly than others, it never fails to draw attention. I thought it might be fun to highlight some of our yellow feathered friends, and how they manage to pull off such a bold and outspoken color.
Of course when you talk about yellow birds, it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge one of the most famous yellow birds in history. Yup, you guessed it, Big Bird. At eight feet, two inches I think it is safe to say that Big Bird is the largest yellow bird the world will ever see. Since 1969 he has resided on Seasame Street, educating generations of children. However, as we are unlikely to ever see Big Bird or his like on a hike in the woods (a mixed blessing really) I think we will switch our focus to some of his smaller yellow contemporaries.
Big Bird and a few other species aside, most birds seem to feel that a touch of yellow is bold enough to draw attention to them, without causing them to stand out too much. What they really want is for the yellow to attract mates, without also attracting predators. And in some cases I think they might have the right idea with their approach. In the case of yellow, less is often more.
We take as our first example of subtle yellow, the Cedar Waxwing. Mostly a dull brown-gray, the Waxwing’s yellow can be seen in two places. The downy feathers of its belly have a yellow tint to them, revealed only to those who have the advantage of seeing it from the ground. The second splash of yellow that the Cedar Waxwing displays is a bit bolder, and can be found on the very tip of its tail, a feature it has in common with the slightly larger Bohemian Waxwing. Together, and compared to the dull coloring of the rest of his plumage, these two splashes of yellow do attract the eye.
Our next bird uses yellow similarly to the Cedar Waxwing, displaying it on its belly. The Great-Crested Flycatcher is not the only flycatcher with a yellow belly. However, it has the brightest yellow belly of all its fellow flycatchers. Despite that statement, you can see from the photo that its downy belly could still be considered light or dull yellow when compared to many of the other birds that sport yellow plumage.
Though much smaller than both the Cedar Waxwing and the Great-Crested Flycatcher, the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet shares their fairly flat brown-gray coloring. The Ruby-Crowned Kinglet displays its yellow it is a bolder spot then its belly. Both the male and the female have a series of bars and stripes of both white and yellow on the tips of its wing and tail feathers. While stationary this yellow may not attract too much attention, but when in motion, the yellow and white stripes draw the eye, almost as boldly as racing stripes on a race car.
The White-Throated Sparrow is probably is probably the most common backyard bird to display the power of the subtle use of yellow. With two dashes of yellow, over the top of each eye, this Sparrow is immediately distinguishable from any other sparrows that might be at your feeders. I am not sure if it is the placement of the yellow, so close to the white strip or if it is the contrast of the yellow against a relatively dark brown head and body. Perhaps it is a combination of both. But there is no denying, the minute a White-Throated Sparrow is on the scene, you can’t help but notice it.
The Common Yellowthroat displays its yellow a bit more openly. While the throats of both sexes of the Common Yellowthroat are the brightest yellow plumage found on their bodies, their brown-gray back feathers do have a yellowish tint if seen in the right light. I personally think the male’s yellow seems a bit brighter than his mate, but that could be because of the contrast between the yellow and the black mask across his face. The female’s face, in comparison, is the same brown-gray of its body, and therefore the combination provides less of an impact.
Yellow plumage is a very common feature of many of North America’s many warblers. As with other bird varieties, we find that some warblers use yellow more sparingly than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler provides a good example of subdued yellow plumage on a warbler. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler sports bright yellow splashes in a few key areas, which contrast with the gray, white and black of the rest of its plumage. As his name clearly indicates, one of those three splashes is located on its “rump.” Rump in this case refers to its back, where its tail attaches to its body. Besides its backside, the Yellow-Rumped Warbler also has a flash of yellow on either side of its breast, near where its wings tuck into its body. The third yellow highlight is a stripe going down the center of its head.
When observed alone, the yellow of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler might not seem all that understated. But compare him to the male Palm Warbler or the Yellow Warbler, and suddenly you will understand what I mean by understated. While the Palm Warbler (left) is not completely yellow, he may as well be. While his wings, tail and back are a brownish-green or olive, his chest immediately draws your eye with its vivid yellow coloring. The Yellow Warbler (right) can’t even pretend. While it does have black wing bars and brown stripes running down its belly, the Yellow Warbler is everything its name implies, yellow. After a quick look at the warbler section of any North American bird book, you will see that I am not kidding when I say that these are just two examples of mostly yellow warblers. I counted about fourteen, but you could easily find more. It all depends on where you draw the line between yellow and yellow highlights.
Of course, having talked about all of these yellow birds, many of my readers are probably wondering how I could be so remiss as to omit the bright yellow of the Goldfinch, New Jersey’s state bird. However, rather than omit it, I was saving the best for last. The Goldfinch is probably one of the first birds that come to mind when a bird watcher is asked to name a yellow bird. Despite its name, the Goldfinch is not a rich gold color, but rather a bright and bold yellow. The males sport a black cap on their heads, and both sexes also display black wings with a white band. As is the case with so many bird species, the male Goldfinch tends to be the brighter of the two sexes, but the females are still pretty bright, and only seem dull when they are directly compared to the males.