Wild Side: Yellow-throated warbler - The Martha's Vineyard Times (2024)

Well, he’s back again.

In one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of Martha’s Vineyard bird life, a male yellow-throated warbler is once again on territory amid the tall pitch pines of a residential neighborhood in Vineyard Haven. Found again last week, this charismatic bird has been showing well, singing persistently, and exhibiting his characteristic penchant for flying in to take a close look at his own observers. You’d almost think this bird enjoys being watched; he certainly enjoys visiting the Vineyard.

According to my colleague Luanne Johnson, this bird was first found at the end of April in 2019, and has been observed annually since then. How long he remains on his territory each year is not entirely clear; one limitation of data collected from recreational birders is that the reports stop coming once a bird loses its novelty. But reports typically extend into late May or June, showing that the bird is territorial, and not simply passing through.

I’ve noticed no distinctive marks on the bird that allow absolute certainty that it’s the same bird returning. But given the rarity of the species here, and the consistency of the bird’s arrival date, location choice, and behavior, it seems inconceivable that multiple individuals could be involved.

The yellow-throated warbler is essentially a species of the Southeastern U.S. The breeding range of the bird extends north along the East Coast into southernmost New Jersey and southwestern Pennsylvania. In southern New England, the species occurs as a rare but quite regular “overshoot” migrant in the spring, its arrival here sometimes associated with coastal storms or strong southerly winds. Fall records do occur, but are less frequent. A relatively short-distance migrant, the species retreats mainly to Florida, the Yucatán Peninsula, and the Caribbean islands for the winter.

Several poorly defined and somewhat disputed subspecies occupy the overall range of this species. Some birds, typically with relatively long bills and tiny but distinct yellow patches in front of their eyes, breed mainly in East Coast pine habitats. Another form, breeding more in the interior, including the western slope of the Appalachians, prefers sycamore woodland along stream drainages, has a shorter bill, and lacks the yellow facial spots.

As is typical of avian subspecies, these forms intergrade and intermingle. But the Vineyard Haven bird, with a notably long beak and clear yellow in front of his eyes, seems to be a solid member of the coastal, pine-loving group, and probably feels quite at home among the pitch pines in his chosen territory.

Two things are unusual about this bird. First is the length of his history. First found as an adult in the spring of 2019, he could have hatched no later than the 2018 breeding season, and possibly earlier. So as he makes this spring’s trip to the Vineyard, he is approaching at least 6 years of age. This longevity verges on exceptional for a wild songbird; regarding this species in particular, the account in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s authoritative Birds of the World website cites 5 years and 1 month as the oldest individual known to the account’s authors. So the Vineyard Haven bird may be one of the oldest yellow-throated warblers on record.

But perhaps even more notable is the fact that this bird sets up shop on the Vineyard every season. We are hundreds of miles from the northern edge of the typical breeding range of the species. The inescapable inference is that, having mistakenly flown too far north during the 2019 spring migration, this individual simply liked what he found enough to keep returning.

With at least six full migration cycles to his credit, this bird certainly wins points for his survival abilities.

But what about reproductive success, which is really the gold standard for defining success in the natural world? In this area, it must be said that our bird has chosen a high-risk strategy, establishing a territory in a place where his species occurs only as a rare vagrant. The odds are slim of a female yellow-throated warbler happening along to mate with, and at this bird’s advanced age, time is surely running out for chances to pass along his otherwise exceptional genes. (Though if a female did appear, our bird would enjoy the complete absence of competition from other males.)

Territorial and even actual breeding records for this species far north of its normal range are not unprecedented. And overall, it appears that yellow-throated warbler is gradually but steadily extending its range northward. Viewed in that context, the reliably returning Vineyard Haven bird is unusual, but perhaps best viewed as a cog in the overall evolutionary strategy of his species. Individuals like this one are the vanguard of range expansion, usually failing to reproduce, but sometimes establishing outposts that help the species overall adapt to altering habitat conditions and climate. I wish this genial bird the best of luck.

Wild Side: Yellow-throated warbler - The Martha's Vineyard Times (2024)


Do Yellow-throated Warblers come to feeders? ›

Yellow-throated Warblers may only use bird feeders on occasion, but you can still provide habitat for them by landscaping with native trees and shrubs. Creating a bird-friendly backyard by growing native plants can provide excellent stopover habitat to support warblers as they migrate to and from the breeding grounds.

Where are Yellow-throated Warblers found? ›

Breeds in pine forests, sycamore and bald cypress swamps, and riparian woodlands. Often forages high in the canopy.

How to attract Yellow-throated Warblers? ›

How Do You Attract Warblers?
  1. Nuts & Berries Suet.
  2. Sunflower Chips.
  3. EcoTough Tail Prop Suet Feeder.
  4. APS Basic Setup. Hanging.

What is the bird song for the Yellow-throated Warbler? ›

Songs. Males sing a sweet series of 6–10 whistled notes that accelerate over the course of the roughly 1-second song and often end on a rising note. The tone is so sweet that people often remember it with the mnemonic sweet sweet sweet I'm so sweet.

Do warblers drink from hummingbird feeders? ›

Warblers can often be found making their way through bushes and trees in search of small insects to eat. On occasion they will eat small fruits plus sunflower seeds when necessary and sometimes flower nectar. Warblers are occasionally seed drinking at Hummingbird Feeders.

Do warblers like peanut butter? ›

Yellow-rumped Warblers winter across much of central and southeastern U.S., and they sometimes come to backyards if food is offered. To attract them, try putting out sunflower seed, raisins, suet, and peanut butter.

Is Yellow-throated Warbler rare? ›

Although still numerous, the Yellow-throated Warbler is threatened by habitat loss, chiefly of riparian areas and swamps.

How rare are yellow warblers? ›

The yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a New World warbler species. Yellow warblers are the most widespread species in the diverse genus Setophaga, breeding in almost the whole of North America, the Caribbean, and down to northern South America.

What is the rarest warbler in the United States? ›

The Kirtland's Warbler is a neat gray-and-yellow bird and one of the rarest songbirds in North America. A true habitat specialist, it breeds only in young jack pine forests in Michigan and adjacent parts of Wisconsin and Ontario.

What time of day are warblers most active? ›

Warblers sing more as it warms up. However, seeing warblers is not restricted to just early morning; migrating warblers are active almost any time of day, particularly if they are hungry during cold weather.

What trees do yellow warblers like? ›

Yellow Warblers build their nests in the vertical fork of a bush or small tree such as willow, hawthorn, raspberry, white cedar, dogwood, and honeysuckle.

Where do warblers sleep at night? ›

It's pretty common to see water birds asleep on the shore, and if you're out and about, you might catch sight of an owl snoozing in a tree. However, the ideal spot for a songbird to sleep is out of sight, above ground level, concealed by branches, twigs and foliage.

What do yellow throated warblers eat? ›

Yellow-throated Warblers eat insects such as beetles, caterpillars, flies, and scale insects. They creep up branches near the top of the canopy and probe into crevices, pine cones, and clusters of pine needles for insects.

What does a yellow warbler look like? ›

Yellow Warblers are uniformly yellow birds. Males are a bright, egg-yolk yellow with reddish streaks on the underparts. Both sexes flash yellow patches in the tail. The face is unmarked, accentuating the large black eye.

Can you attract warblers to bird feeders? ›

Townsend's Warbler

Out west, Townsend's warblers, with their yellow-and-black-striped heads, show similar behaviors. They especially love to drink from flowers during spring migration and may drop by a mealworm feeder or sugar-water feeder. Attract a prothonotary warbler with a birdhouse.

Do warblers visit bird feeders? ›

The Pine Warbler is the only warbler that eats large quantities of seeds, primarily those of pines. This seed-eating ability means Pine Warblers sometimes visit bird feeders, unlike almost all other warblers.

How to attract a common yellowthroat? ›

Yellowthroats are known to make pit stops wherever they can find a dense shrub with a buffet of insects. To attract Yellowthroats and other neat warblers on their migration marathon, try putting a plate of dried insects (crickets, mealworms, etc.) out on the ground near a brush pile or shrub.

What does a yellow-throated warbler eat? ›

Yellow-throated Warblers eat insects such as beetles, caterpillars, flies, and scale insects. They creep up branches near the top of the canopy and probe into crevices, pine cones, and clusters of pine needles for insects.

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