American Redstart and Blackpoll Warbler

A gentle, steady rain began this morning in the dark, well before dawn. I opened a window wider and lay back down in bed and listened for the first bird songs – a Northern Cardinal, then an Eastern Phoebe, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee and Chipping Sparrow. The rain, a beautiful sound in itself, made it hard to hear the full morning chorus of birds all around, so I only heard the closest ones, but gradually, as the day grew into a soft gray light, a Red-eyed Vireo sang in the trees around our front yard, a Great Crested Flycatcher called a deep, rich breet, and both Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager sang in the woods nearby. The rain gradually slowed and stopped, leaving trees and shrubs all drenched and dripping. The clouds lifted and lightened, but the sky stayed mostly overcast all morning.

A couple of hours later, on a gray and damp walk through the neighborhood, a bird sang from some oaks near a side of the road, a string of very high, sweet notes with a rising note at the end. With its flashy colors, it wasn’t too hard to find. An American Redstart – a small black bird with showy patches of bright orange in the wings and tail and on the sides. It was flitting from tree to tree among the dark shadows of this small wooded area, and singing and singing. There were at least two, both males, with orange and black plumage, and I think there were more, but I only saw these two for sure. 

American Redstarts are lively, very colorful birds that flash their wings and tails often as they hop through branches searching for insects. They sang the whole time, and I listened intently, trying to impress this song in my memory. Because I don’t hear it often, it’s a hard one for me to remember well, even though they are common migrants here and I should know it well by now. 

In another wooded spot a little further on, I found a female American Redstart with a small feeding flock of other birds – gray with patches of yellow in wings and tail and on the side, she also flashes her wings and tail often, just as animated as the male. In the same trees with her, were a Black-and-white Warbler, Great Crested Flycatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Tufted Titmice, and a Red-eyed Vireo.

There also were some other, very small, grayish birds with neat streaks on the sides that I couldn’t identify at first. They were up pretty high, so I was seeing them mostly from underneath, and had to be patient to finally glimpse part of a head, a wing, a face – and orange legs. They were Blackpoll Warblers, and the one I could see best was a female, a small gray bird with a short tail, a thin, sharp bill, a pale breast, white wing bars, a pale, broken ring around the eye and a thin dark streak through the eye, fine streaking on the sides – and orange legs. She moved in a delicate and quick way over the branches, not fluttery, but moving steadily, intent on searching the branches and leaves for prey. I did not see a male, whose spring plumage is a brighter black and white pattern.

Blackpoll Warblers are here in this part of Georgia only in migration. They spend the breeding season in boreal forests of Canada and Alaska and the far north, and migrate to South America and the Caribbean for the winter. Blackpoll Warblers migrate the longest distance of any North American warblers, some traveling from Alaska to Brazil. So the small, delicate bird I’m seeing here in May is in the middle of an amazingly long journey, on its way north for the summer.

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