May is the height of warbler season in Grand Forks. As many as two dozen species pass through, most bound for nesting areas in Canada’s boreal forests.
By contrast, a birder might find four species in the area in July.
The most likely encounter would be with a yellow warbler, which I call a “backyard bird.” I count on seeing yellow warblers in the patch of lilacs at our place west of Gilby, N.D., and I am seldom disappointed.
At my place, any other warbler species would be a bonus in summer.
One of these bonus species is the American redstart, less abundant in our area than the yellow warbler, but still a dependable summer warbler.
A second, less likely bonus is the black-and-white warbler, which has shown up at our place only once.
The fourth “resident” warbler is the common yellowthroat. This is a wetland species that occasionally drops into the wet meadow on our property that’s usually the haunt of bobolinks and meadowlarks.
These four species are nesters here; two others are possible nesters, based on observed behavior — mostly territorial displays. These are ovenbird and northern waterthrush, both secretive and elusive birds that are more often heard than seen.
The local checklist of birds includes 10 more species that have been seen in Grand Forks County in the summer months. These are accidentals, however, and not to be expected.
By contrast, late May could produce as many as 25 species of warblers. Fall migration brings just as many, but these are drabber birds that are easily overlooked. The bird guides refer to them as “confusing fall warblers.”
The yellow warbler is just that: a yellow warbler. No other bird in our area is so uniformly yellow, overall, and yellow will definitely be your first impression. Most of these birds do have some red or chestnut striping on the breast, and some show a little bit of chestnut on the top of the head. Backs are greenish yellow. Wings are not prominently marked.
The only other bird that’s likely to be mistaken for a yellow warbler is the American goldfinch, and a quick second glance will reveal key differences that clinch the identification of either species. Male goldfinches have black on the top of the head and prominent white wing bars on black wings. Females are less colorful, but they also have the prominent white bands on the wings.
Yellow warblers and willow patches go together. The monograph on the species in “Birds of North America” calls the yellow warbler “a flash of yellow in a patch of willow.”
The other July warblers are less often encountered in our area.
Redstarts are more closely associated with more extensive woodlands, often with open patches, including picnic grounds and natural clearings. They are active birds, often betrayed by sudden flashes of orange or red. Overall, the bird is black; the red color occurs on the breast and tail. Redstarts are dependable along the Red River and the Devils Lake area and common in the Turtle Mountains. They also occur in wooded patches, including farm shelterbelts.
The common yellowthroat has been called “the Lone Ranger of the warbler world.” A black mask over its eyes and a yellow throat stand out prominently. These are wetland birds, and they’re secretive skulkers, rather like wrens in their behavior. Like other wetland warblers, they aren’t often seen, but they can be identified by sound. Their call is a distinctive “Witchity-witchity-witchity-witch” – which is loud, unmistakable, unforgettable and definitely uttered by a yellowthroat.
The last bird on my warbler list is also well-described in its name: black-and-white warbler. This warbler behaves more like a nuthatch or a creeper than it does like a warbler, circling tree limbs and probing in moss for insect meals. Hence, it has been called “moss warbler.” Watch for awhile, however, and the black and white will betray its affinities with more typical, flighty warbler behavior.
There you have the mantra for July: Red and yellow, black and white – there are warblers within sight.