Fleet­ing war­blers worth a neck crick

These tiny birds mix a daz­zling rain­bow of col­ors and mark­ings, but they never, ever war­ble.

Star Tribune - - VARIETY - By VAL CUN­NING­HAM Con­tribut­ing Writer

Tiny, col­or­ful birds flit through our trees dur­ing spring mi­gra­tion, snap­ping up cater­pil­lars and other small in­sects to feed their fre­netic lifestyle. As bril­liant as par­rots, in many cases, this fam­ily of birds is known as the wood-war­blers.

And they just may be the best kept se­cret in the bird world. Back when my hus­band and I were neo­phyte bird watch­ers, we were talk­ing with a more ex­pert friend. “How many war­blers have you seen this spring?” he asked, and we looked at each other in won­der. We’d never even heard of war­blers, but once we be­gan watch­ing for them, spring was filled with much more color and ac­tiv­ity. And we en­coun­tered an un­fore­seen side ef­fect: So many war­bler species work in the up­per tree canopy that strain­ing to watch them causes a well-known mal­ady — war­bler neck.

Min­nesota is the sum­mer home for around 25 war­bler species, birds that sel­dom hold still and carry tan­ta­liz­ing names like red­start, black-throated green, cerulean and ch­est­nut-sided war­bler. Some of the small­est birds on the con­ti­nent, war­blers are de­signer birds, adorned with bright heads, throats, chests or wings, or, in some cases, all of these. War­bler watch­ers look for flashes of bright yel­low, blue, orange or cin­na­mon brown, plus dra­matic pat­terns around eyes, on wings, chest or back. (How­ever, there are some plain birds in the fam­ily, such as the olive drab orange-crowned war­bler.)

They’re an ephemeral phe­nom­e­non of spring. The first to ar­rive are the yel­low-rumped war­blers, mi­grat­ing in from Cen­tral Amer­ica and the South­east. This hand­some lit­tle bird with its dis­tinc­tive yel­low-patched rear causes great ex­cite­ment in the bird­ing com­mu­nity when the first few are re­ported in late March — this means that the rest of the war­blers are on their way.

What starts as a trickle builds, as trees start leaf­ing out, to a wave as black and whites, com­mon yel­lowthroats, Nashvilles and Black­bur­ni­ans dash in, just as cater­pil­lars are hatch­ing and be­gin­ning to feast on spring’s tiny leaves. This is what war­blers are built for, with pointed, tweezer-like beaks, ideal for snatch­ing up squirmy in­sects. Soon the whole clan


Size: 5 inches long.

Fact: Each war­bler watcher has a fa­vorite, and this flashy lit­tle bird is mine.

Watch for: Sun­light brings out its green back, con­trast­ing with a yel­low face. is in town, from pro­thono­taries to blue-wings to yel­lows to mag­no­lias.

Sound more like in­sects

As for their fam­ily name, war­blers don’t war­ble at all and in fact, they of­ten sound more like in­sects. They mostly emit buzzy trills, but some bur­ble lovely notes, such as the North­ern parula, which seems to have lis­tened to “The Wil­liam Tell Over­ture” at some point.

And sud­denly, by mid-June, they’ll be gone, head­ing for north­ern forests where mas­sive hatches of in­sects make it easy to keep nestlings fed dur­ing the short breed­ing sea­son. But we can still ob­serve the war­blers that nest around us, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can red­starts, yel­lows, pro­thono­taries, oven­birds and com­mon yel­lowthroats. Size: 5 inches long.

Fact: Fast-mov­ing lit­tle bird with dis­tinc­tive black eye mask.

Lis­ten for: Sings a dis­tinc­tive “witchity-witchity” song, found in wet­lands.

Be­cause they’re so fo­cused on in­sects, war­blers are sel­dom seen at backyard bird feed­ers. How­ever, dur­ing very cold springs, when in­sects are scarce, a few may peck at suet or small pieces of fruit.

As these small, vi­brant birds pass through our area briefly each spring, I’d ad­vise grab­bing a pair of binoc­u­lars, head­ing out­doors and look­ing up at tree canopies any­time be­tween early April and mid-June. Even if they cause a sore neck, war­blers are some of the bird world’s lit­tle-known won­ders, al­ways re­ward­ing to see. BLACKBURNIAN WAR­BLER Size: 5 inches long.

Fact: Ar­rives in early May and searches for in­sects high in the tree­tops.

Watch for: Its neon-bright orange throat is unique, eye-catch­ing. Morn­ings and late af­ter­noons are the best time to find spring’s war­blers for­ag­ing for in­sects:

Afton State Park, 6959 Peller Av. S., Hast­ings.

Crosby Farm Re­gional Park, 2595 Crosby Farm Rd., St. Paul.

Fort Snelling State Park, 101 Snelling Lake Rd., St. Paul.

Maple­wood Na­ture Cen­ter, 2659 E. 7th St., Maple­wood.

Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanc­tu­ary, 4124 Rose­way Rd., Min­neapo­lis. Mis­sis­sippi River Gorge Re­gional Park, both sides of Mis­sis­sippi River, I-35W bridge to Ford Pkwy.

Coon Rapids Dam Re­gional Park, 10360 West River Rd., Brook­lyn Park. Wood Lake Na­ture Cen­ter, 6710 Lake Shore Dr., Rich­field.

Hear the birds

For record­ings of bird songs, call the fol­low­ing numbers. 612-573-5770: com­mon yellowthroat war­bler 612-573-5829: North­ern parula

612-573-5621: yel­low war­bler AMER­I­CAN RED­START

5¼ inches long.

Fl­its and fans its tail to star­tle and freeze in­sects long enough to catch them.

Its orange and black plumage leads some to call it a “lit­tle ori­ole.” NORTH­ERN PARULA

4½ inches long.

One of the small­est war­blers, and of­ten found near wa­ter.

Watch for: Bright bands of color across its yel­low chest, a fast-mov­ing bird.

Size: Fact: Watch for:

Size: Fact:

Size: 5 inches long.

Fact: Nests in our area and sings from outer branches, mak­ing it easy to spot.

Lis­ten for: One of the best song­sters, with its “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet” song.

Size: 5½ inches long.

Fact: Cold-hardy birds, the first to ar­rive in spring, among the last to leave in au­tumn.

Watch for: Dis­tinc­tive yel­low rump patch earns it the nick­name “but­ter butt.”

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