“What’s that bird?!” I called out as I ran into the house, desperately trying to get my son’s attention. We both enjoy watching birds, but he is much better at identifying them. It was mid-August, 2018 and I wasn’t expecting to see any unusual visitors at our new stream. It was a Chestnut-sided Warbler! We had never seen warblers in the yard before.
Fast-forward to mid-August of 2019. Once again, I saw a bird that I didn’t recognize. This time, it was a female American Redstart. It turned out to be the first in a flurry of special guests. Since I started taking photos of birds in our yard, I can share some of them with you.
Fueling up for early migration
Most of the unusual birds that visited in late August and early September were warblers. Warblers usually hang out in the tree canopy where they hunt for insects. They’re hard to spot up there because they move around constantly, and are hidden by leaves. Birders joke that you get ‘warbler neck’ from craning to find or track them high up in the trees.
We didn’t hear the visiting warblers singing at all, which would have helped us notice and identify them. They were also wearing duller plumage than they do in the spring breeding season, which makes it harder to identify them.
Warblers are long-distance migrants, overwintering in Central and South America. Since they eat mostly insects, they migrate early to ensure they’ll have a good food supply en route. They also eat berries to help fuel their trip. The warblers that visited our yard were either migrating or preparing for it. We spotted them for several weeks, so they may have been here eating insects, and native berries in the hedgerow, to fatten up.
In addition to food, these birds need shallow water for drinking and bathing, which motivated them to drop down from the trees to our stream. The sound of the running water attracted them. I’m glad I was able to give them a good start to their difficult journey.
We saw a female American Redstart, but no male. Males looks quite different; they’re mostly black and orange with a white belly. We’ve seen them in the woods at Fletcher Wildlife Garden during the summer. They’re one of the more common warblers around.
At first, I thought the Yellow Warblers were Goldfinches, but they didn’t quite look right, and they behaved quite differently. Yellow Warblers are fun to watch because they swoop down from their perches in trees to catch flying insects. This behaviour is called ‘sallying’. We were able to see them easily in the Honeylocust because this tree has sparse, small leaves compared with others in our yard. Sixty-seven percent of their diet is insects, so they’re good to have around to control pests like mosquitoes (Gardening for Birds at Ottawa Public Library, page 383). They migrate early, so by mid-August most have left Canada and northern United States.
This Black-and-white Warbler was particularly striking-looking. While many warblers are yellow or have yellow markings, this one is entirely black, white and grey. They used to be called Black-and-white Creepers because they climb along tree trunks and branches looking for insects, just like Brown Creepers. I think they look more like black and white woodpeckers than other warblers.
Wilson’s Warblers are small warblers, and we thought they looked particularly round and cute. They breed in mountains and northern forests, so I guess they were just passing through heading south. These warblers forage for insects at lower levels in the trees and shrubs, so they’re easier to spot. However, we only saw them once they flew over to the lilacs on their way to the stream.
This bird’s eyes look black to me, but it’s called a Red-eyed Vireo. They will nest in suburbs, but we didn’t notice them in our yard before August. Red-eyed Vireo’s are known for their incessant, almost monotonous singing during breeding season, so they were once nicknamed the ‘preachers’.
In the summer, they eat insects, but switch almost entirely to berries later on. Perhaps this bird was enjoying some of the berries in our young hedgerow.
Even more birds at the stream
Besides warblers, we saw other unusual birds around the yard, and at the stream, but I didn’t get any good photos of them. We saw a few different flycatchers, and even a Baltimore Oriole. This was in addition to the regulars we see there all year round. I can hardly wait to see what birds show up during migration this spring.