Last Days of April – A Myrtle Warbler’s Farewell Song

On April 29 in the morning, under a deep blue, very clear sunny sky, a sweet whistled series of notes came from the green leaves of one of the oaks over our deck. The song sounded so pure and lovely I had to look to make sure – it was a Yellow-rumped Warbler in bright spring plumage, singing more fluently than any I’d heard before this.

All winter long, Yellow-rumped Warblers are abundant here, as in much of eastern North America, little gray-brown birds in drab, streaked winter plumage punctuated by a yellow patch on the rump and pale yellow smudges on the sides, frequently giving dry, colorless check calls as they fly like windblown leaves from spot to spot among trees and shrubs.

Before they leave in the spring – for breeding territories in northern and western forests –Yellow-rumped Warblers begin to fill the new green foliage of hardwood trees with gently jangling music, like delicate tambourines, and their plain plumage turns to a striking pattern of steel-gray back and wings, white wing-bars, white throat, black mask, and black-streaked vest over a white belly – and a yellow spot on the crown, and of course, a yellow rump.

For the past few weeks, their songs had filled many trees, and I’d listened to them mostly as a chorus of birds singing together. This was one of the few times I had listened to just one spring-colored Yellow-rumped Warbler singing alone, and watched as it lifted its head, parted its beak and sang – and flitted from branch to branch of the white oak. It seemed to me like a farewell song, and I took the time, for a change, to fully appreciate a winter bird I too often take for granted.

The next day I left for more than ten days of travel, and when I returned yesterday, the Yellow-rumped Warblers seemed all to be gone.

I used to know Yellow-rumped Warblers as Myrtle Warblers, a much more lyrical and fitting name, before they were grouped together with Audubon’s Warbler into one species with the sadly unimaginative – though descriptive – name of yellow-rumped. The two subspecies are still recognized, however, and this one was a Myrtle Warbler, distinguished by its white throat (not yellow). Most Yellow-rumped Warblers in the eastern U.S. are Myrtle, while Audubon’s are more common in the west.

Leave a Reply