Magnolia Warbler – Tale of a Tail

This morning was gray, very cloudy, damp, cool and misty, with lots of bird activity and some nice surprises. As I stepped out onto the front porch, about a dozen Mourning Doves exploded up from the ground below the feeder, wings whistling as they flew in all directions. Gee. I like having a few Mourning Doves around, but don’t know about so many.

Chickadees and Titmice chattered as they went back and forth to the feeder, a Carolina Wren sang from out back, a pair of Cardinals peeped under the bushes, a Phoebe, Brown-headed Nuthatch and distant Blue Jays called.

One of the first things that caught my eye was the movement of a little bird with a yellow throat and breast in the branches of a pecan tree – it had to be a warbler. It took me several minutes to get a good look at it, but what I first saw most clearly was a great view of the underside of its tail – which may not sound like much, but can be distinctive, especially with warblers, often hard to see well among the foliage. This one was white, with a cleanly defined wide black tip, slightly notched – a tail belonging only to a Magnolia Warbler.

The little bird continued to be hard to see as it moved around quickly in the yellow-green, curling pecan leaves, which screened it from view most of the time as it gleaned insects. I put it all together in pieces – yellow throat and breast, white under the tail, faint streaks on the flanks and round, smooth gray head, a hint of a slight white eye-ring, and thin white wing bars. Then the tail fanned out as it moved and a wide white tail-band flashed.

Magnolia Warblers are common migrants here, moving through on their way from breeding grounds in northern boreal forests, to winter homes in Central America and the Caribbean. They are bright, active wood warblers, known best at this time of year by the yellow breast and wide white tail-band and their quick way of moving around as they glean insects and spiders from the leaves. In spring and summer, the male’s breeding plumage is a striking pattern of yellow, black and white, with a black mask and a necklace of black streaks.

Their name is traced to ornithologist Alexander Wilson, who collected one from a magnolia tree in Mississippi in the early 19th century.

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