Foam Lake Birding No. 15

No. 15
At this time of year many of our backyards are being invaded by small, often drab, yellowish birds on the start of their fall migration. Up to twenty different species of these energetic, almost frenetic, birds can be seen in our yards at one time or another.
These little birds, unique to the Americas, are called wood warblers. Because they do not exist in the Old World, they had no “ready made” name as it were. Therefore, they were named after similar, but unrelated, Old World birds – the warblers. The adjective, wood, was added to differentiate the two groups. Here, in North America, we refer to our wood warblers simply as warblers. Males and females of Old World warblers are similar and basically brown in colour; male and female wood warblers are different (except for five species) and much more colourful with the majority being yellow to some degree.
Spring is the best time to observe warblers as the males are in their colourful spring plumage and are quite distinctive. The females are pale versions of the males. In the fall, the males have molted and look like the females making identification very challenging to say the least. In the summer, most warblers are nesting in the boreal forests leaving us with only one species – the Yellow Warbler. The problem facing birders is that, during migration, not many warblers come into our backyards in the spring, but many do in the fall. Why? A good guess would be that our fall visitors are probably juveniles that have not developed a keen wariness of man. Whatever the reasons, one usually, has to leave one’s backyard to see spring warblers. Warblers, in general, like thickets near water. Therefore, one good location to observe them is along Milligan Creek on the nature trail near the visitor’s centre. I do intend to cover a few warblers next spring when they are “at their best”.
In the early fall, one of the most common warblers in town is this week’s featured bird – the Tennessee Warbler. It is so named because it was first identified in Tennessee, but is common here during migration. Like most warblers, it is smaller than a sparrow; has a needle-like beak; and usually wears a fair amount of yellow. Some, especially juveniles, can be quite pale with very little yellow. It is very similar to several other species, but has three subtle and distinguishing features: first, it has a yellowish green back and tail; second, it has a modest whitish eyebrow line enhancing the black line through the eye; third, it is white on the lower belly at the base of the tail (under tail coverts). A small, drab yellowish warbler with all of the above features is most likely a Tennessee Warbler.
Getting a picture of a warbler is quite frustrating as they are constantly flitting about in shrubs and trees looking for small insects. This week’s photo shows a Tennessee Warbler, in typical pose, gleaning insects from the underside of a leaf. To attract these, and other warblers, to your garden in the fall leave a small stand of dill. Dill seems to attract small insects which, in turn, attract warblers. At times, a small dill patch will have several species of warblers feeding together.
At the beginning of the Labour Day weekend, our backyard was literally swarming with finches, sparrows and warblers. On Monday, September 1, there was not a bird in sight. I assumed the dull and dreary weather was to blame, but when a Cooper’s Hawk landed on our lawn, I knew the real reason! Feeders do attract birds, but birds, in turn, do attract predators. Predatory animals, like cats, do cause some excitement, but do not really scare the birds that much; predatory birds do. There are four such birds that are actually quite common in our area: the Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp Shinned Hawk, Merlin and Northern Shrike. They catch birds in flight, and bird feeders are a handy source of food. I tried to get a picture of the hawk, but it took off as soon as it noticed my movement. Within minutes after the hawk left, the birds were back at the feeders. The fear does not last long! Such are the ways of nature.
At least half a dozen of these small yellowish warblers come to our garden each fall and identifying them is challenging. As of this writing, we have had nine different species of Wood Warblers in our backyard: Blackburnian, Cape May, Orange Crowned, Oven Bird, Redstart, Tennessee, Wilson’s, Yellow and Yellow Rumped (Myrtle). We do expect to see a few more. Quite often the birds cannot be positively identified. In addition, another group of unrelated, but similar birds, the vireos, have arrived. Three species, the Blue Headed, Philadelphia and Red Eyed, have been in our backyard for several days now. For a beginning birder, the task of identification can be daunting and even overwhelming. At a time like this, one should set identification aside and enjoy these energetic little birds as a whole. In a couple of weeks or so, depending on the weather, they will be gone.