Quebec chronicles – passerines with yellow colors, part 1

People who journey to the Tadoussac Dunes area in Quebec during spring bird migration often are focused mainly on one type of bird. They are members of the group of passerine birds, i.e., birds that perch using four toes – three that face forward and one that faces backwards. The “new world warblers” (also called wood warblers) are a subgroup of passerines that are only found in the Western hemisphere. They are featured in this blog and include some of my favorite photos from our trip. The next blog, passerines part 2, will feature other bird species that perch.

The warblers really are quite beautiful in their breeding plumage and many birders spend long periods of time searching them out and admiring them. This often involves looking up at treetops since many species forage for insects in mid- and high forest canopies. This may lead to a condition in humans called “warbler neck”, the result of staying for a prolonged time in the posture indicated to the left. (The statue was in the lobby of our Quebec hotel and was called “Force intérieure” (inner force) by Julie Lajoie.)

One warbler that we didn’t need to strain to see was the Cape May (Setophaga tigrina), which was named for Cape May, New Jersey, where it was first observed by ornithologist Alexander Wilson in 1811. After that, these birds weren’t seen again in that area for more than a century!

The males really do call attention to themselves with their bright breeding colors – a distinctive rusty cheek patch, yellow throat and collar, dark crown and lots of vertical black stripes going down its sides and chest.

In spring, this warbler migrates almost 3,000 miles from the West Indies to the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern US to breed. As the fist-sized songbird flies north, its diet adapts to the environment. During winter among the palm trees, the Cape May drinks berry juice and the nectar from flowers thanks to its unusual semi-tubular and curled tongue. (It will also drink from nectar feeders!) But in summer in the boreal forests, it eats insects—especially the spruce budworm—with a special gusto.

The male and female build a nest together near the top of a tree (35-60 feet high!) and the female tries to prevent others from seeing the nest. She namely will not enter the nest directly but goes up and down the trunk of the tree, entering from below.

A second seemingly ubiquitous bird at our migration destination was the magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia). Like the Cape May, the male in breeding attire has vertical black stripes on a yellow chest but his face is marked by a black mask topped by a white stripe.

 

Most of my sightings of this species involved individuals looking for insects on the ground. At one point, it was interesting to see a “Maggie” fluttering his wings over sandy spots in the dunes, obviously to scare up insects that he then quickly grabbed. My attempts to get a photo of the fluttering were unsuccessful but it was very cool to watch.

 

 

 

Another warbler that sports a black “necklace” against a yellow breast is the Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis). Males and females look similar except that the male has a bit longer tail and somewhat darker breast stripes.

 

Some of these birds spend the summer in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina (NC), but I had not seen one before. Towards the end of our trip, a Canada warbler decided to forage in the yard of the house where we were staying – finally, I was able to get some good looks at him!

The male Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca) also has black breast stripes but against a white background. His face is quite striking with a flame-orange throat against a yellow and black head.  The female is somewhat more muted in coloration but also quite lovely.

 

These birds do not appear to be shy around people. One was grabbing insects in a grassy patch near a parking lot and not at all perturbed when five of us stopped nearby to take portrait shots.

Another was intent on getting insects among the rocks alongside a pier.

 

 

 

 

 

The Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) was a lifer for me, fairly easy to distinguish by its rufous cap.

 

 

An interesting bit of information about them is that they sometimes use porcupine quills in constructing their nests, which they locate on the ground under shrubs!

The Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla) also has a distinctive cap, but when I got to see one around dusk one day, it didn’t feel like turning around to face me. It was nevertheless another lifer.

They spend a lot of time in the understory and nest on the ground, but that apparently doesn’t make them easier to spot!

One warbler that I have seen several times in NC is the tiny yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia). They tend to like being near wetlands and streams and this has proved to be the case for my spottings. I have seen them near a water ditch in one reserve as well as near the Haw River. In Quebec, I also saw one searching for insects in the rocks bordering a pier.

 

You can see that this warbler has reddish striping on its chest and that is what I’ve noted in the birds seen in my area. However, below you can see a male bird without striping; our local guide said that a number of birds that breed in Quebec do not develop any striping but remain entirely yellow.

 

A behavior that distinguishes them from many other birds is that they are capable of recognizing when a brown-headed cowbird has laid one of its eggs in their nest. The yellow warblers try to avoid raising the nest parasite by smothering the cowbird egg with a new layer of nest materials. If they had already laid eggs of their own, they then produce a new clutch; sometimes, they just build a new nest elsewhere.

Another warbler that is quite familiar to me is the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata). A group spends the winter at my yard feeders and begin changing into their breeding plumage shortly before migrating north. In Quebec, I got to see them in their full coloration, and they were handsome indeed!

My final bird for this blog is also one I’ve seen before, but I found it simply stunning when watching it in the Canadian trees. The black-throated green warbler (Setophagahy virens) as the striped warblers but the brightness of the yellow and black coloring on the breeding male is wonderful to see.

They seemed to “color-match” some of the trees in which I watched them foraging.

 

In other cases, they complemented the deep green of the deciduous evergreen trees in which they were perching.

 

 

 

These birds particularly like caterpillars but eat a wide variety of insects. An interesting behavior observed by researchers concerns its singing – the males really like to belt it out, with one male having been recorded singing 466 songs in one hour!

 

Having observed these wood warblers in their breeding habitat, I now have an increased understanding of why birders are willing to endure warbler necks. 😊