Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided Warbler

On a soft, warm, dove-gray morning, lots of small birds flew back and forth across the road in a wooded spot, going from trees on one side to the other. Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered and a White-breasted Nuthatch called its nasal ank. There were Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and a Downy Woodpecker. An Eastern Phoebe sang in the woods nearby and a Pine Warbler trilled its song. Among this feeding flock of small songbirds, flashes of yellow and green turned out to be at least three migrating warblers. A Chestnut-sided Warbler, an American Redstart, and – best of all – an elegant Blackburnian Warbler.

The first one I saw, flitting from spot to spot among the leaves, was a small gray-green bird with a round yellowish head, a gray face and a very distinct white eye ring, and yellow wing bars – an immature Chestnut-sided Warbler. It’s the first one I’ve seen in a while, though I used to see them here almost every year in fall migration. It’s a lively, quick-moving little bird that’s charming to watch as it searches for insects in the leaves and sometimes flies up to capture an insect in the air.

Closer to the ground, some other small birds were more fluttery, flashing yellow as they darted in and out of sight among the grape vines and lower vegetation. They seemed to be in constant motion, so they were hard to catch, staying mostly obscured by the leaves, but finally one fluttered up in a butterfly-like way, its tail flaring and flashing sunny yellow – a female American Redstart. While a male Redstart is black with bright orange patches on the sides, wings and tail, a female is gray and yellow, and the wide bands of yellow when the tail flares are especially noticeable. Redstarts are thought to flash the colors in their wings and tails to flush out insect prey. 

It wasn’t movement that drew my eyes to another, rather long and slender warbler moving along a branch. It was the deep-yellow throat and upper breast of a Blackburnian Warbler. This one, too, was a female or immature male. In fall plumage, its colors were not as brilliant as they would have been in spring, but they still looked vibrant and created a striking appearance. 

The head was olive, the face framed by a distinctive yellow eyebrow and an olive cheek that contrasted with the bright yellow throat. It was yellow on the sides, with dark streaks, and a grayish, streaked back and dark wings with bright white wing bars. The underside of its tail was very white with a dark tip, and when it briefly flared the tail once, it showed white in the edges.

I was able to watch for several minutes as it moved along the branches searching for prey in the leaves, and saw it stretch out low along one branch to capture and eat a rather large caterpillar.

A male Blackburnian Warbler in spring is a spectacular bird, black and white with a fiery-orange throat and face. They are mostly birds of the high treetops, especially in their breeding range in northern forests. But in migration like this, they may search for food lower in the trees or even in shrubs. They mostly eat insects, especially caterpillars, searching along branches and twigs and sometimes hovering over leaves to pick off their prey.

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