New season sees yellow-rumped warbler making a stop on migration north

  • The trademark of the yellow-rumped warbler is the bright spot of yellow on its rump. There is also yellow on the crown and the wings. Both males and females have the yellow markings, but the females are dull-colored overall.

    The trademark of the yellow-rumped warbler is the bright spot of yellow on its rump. There is also yellow on the crown and the wings. Both males and females have the yellow markings, but the females are dull-colored overall. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

 
Posted4/23/2020 6:00 AM

We all need survival strategies in these stressful, scary times. My preferred coping method is binge-watching. Not on the couch staring at a screen, but outside, watching the woods.

Pandemics and politics are not part of the picture with livestreaming nature.

 

There's plenty to watch outside as spring is unfolding. During the recent intermittent snow squalls, a bird called the yellow-rumped warbler was putting on quite a show, evidently scoffing at the bitter wind and snow flurries.

These small songbirds migrate each spring from wintering grounds as far south as Central America to breeding grounds in the north woods of the United States and Canada. In Illinois, we get to see them in-between as they fuel up with insect food.

How do you tell a "yellow-rump" from, say, a robin?

Yellow-rumped warblers are small, only about five and a half inches from head to tail. They sport a brilliant yellow crown, yellow patches on the wings, and an equally bright yellow patch on the rear-end.

Unfortunately for the bird, it's the latter that inspired the name "yellow-rumped warbler."

The colloquial term "butter-butt" is not much better, but birders use the term with fondness. The scientific name, Dendroica coronata, is more dignified, referring to its crown and not its derrière.

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The first faint strains of the yellow-rumped warbler's songs are often heard on chilly days in April.

Two male yellow-rumped warblers pause from their feeding at Freeman Kame Forest Preserve in Gilberts. These active birds feed all day long in order to sustain their journey north.
Two male yellow-rumped warblers pause from their feeding at Freeman Kame Forest Preserve in Gilberts. These active birds feed all day long in order to sustain their journey north. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

The song isn't flamboyant or bold like other species', but as naturalist John Burroughs wrote in 1905, "The song is not all in the singing. It is in the occasion, the surroundings, the spirit of which it is the expression."

The occasion is spring; the surroundings are glorious; and the expression is hope and promise and joy. We could all use a little of that.

Like most warblers, yellow-rumps rarely stay still. They migrate by night and feed all day long, deftly flying in, out, around and through branches to catch insects. They have to be quick to snatch their meals in midair. You have to be equally quick to follow them with binoculars.

Yellow-rumped warblers eat insects throughout spring, but when they make the return trip in the fall, they shift their diet to accommodate seeds, berries and other fruit.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Their digestive system changes seasonally with their diet. The length of their long intestine shrinks just prior to spring migration.

The smaller-sized intestine can handle fast food on the wing (easy-to-digest insects), and it decreases the payload for the long journey.

On a cold, blustery April day, there aren't many insects flying around. The migrating birds desperately need calories -- but what if there are none to be had?

A male yellow-rumped warbler shows its yellow crown while resting at Freeman Kame Forest Preserve in Gilberts. The appearance of this species is a sign that spring has arrived.
A male yellow-rumped warbler shows its yellow crown while resting at Freeman Kame Forest Preserve in Gilberts. The appearance of this species is a sign that spring has arrived. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Early spring arrivals like yellow-rumped warblers can -- and do -- "reverse migrate" when times get really tough. But not for long. They've got a lot of miles to cover before nesting season farther north.

Yellow-rumped warblers will move through Illinois for a few more weeks, so you've got time to see them before the next episode of spring. Take a walk in some nearby woods and listen for the yellow-rump's calls.

If you follow their soft songs, you may catch a glimpse of that yellow rump. And, of course, the yellow crown and wing patches. You'll see spring personified in these beautiful birds.

Watching warblers in the woods may be a new thing for you, thanks to the pandemic.

Or, it may be something you do every year, but now you have more time to do it. Either way, watching nature is just plain good for the soul. Binge away!

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist sheltering in her place in Kane County. You can reach her at natvblaine@gmail.com.

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