March of the Butter Butts: Wildlife Wednesday, March 2020

‘Butter Butt’ is the affectionate nickname given by birders to the songbird, Yellow-rumped warbler, Setophaga coronata.  I’ve been fortunate to host at least one Yellow-rumped warbler each winter for the past few years.  These attractive warblers, muted in color when I see them in winter, are widespread throughout North America.  My home in Central Texas is in the middle of their geographically wide migratory path; many  overwinter here.

“My” little Butter Butt–and I think it’s the only one this winter–is a female, a member of the “Myrtle” subspecies.  There are two subspecies of Yellow-rumps:  “Myrtle”  warblers, from the eastern half of North America and “Audubon’s” warbler, from western areas.  The primary distinguishing features between the two subspecies are that the male Myrtle has a white throat and black mask across the eyes, while the Audubon’s throat is yellow and has no black mask.  There are other differences too, mostly in amount of white between the males and females on the wings and faces.

I’ve identified my Yellow-rump as female.  She lacks the black mask across the eyes that a male Myrtle Yellow-rump warbler wears.  Even without the mask and the bold coloring, she’s still very cute.

When Butter Butts molt (in late spring) their coloring is quite dramatic. You can see  photos of these beauties in their finest feathered forms, here.   Even without the dramatic breeding colors, I think this little bird qualifies as a head-turner in the looks department.

I typically see her at the suet feeder, or bathing in the bog area of the pond.  Plus she frequently forages along the ground in the garden; I have no clue what she noshes under the plants.  Seeds?  Insects?  Probably both!  Yellow-rumped warblers enjoy the widest menu choices of any warbler species.  They eat a huge variety of insects, gleaning those with their pointed beaks from trees and snatching with expertise during flight.  These warblers stand alone–maybe I should say they digest alone–with their consumption of bayberry and wax myrtle berries; no other warblers digest those two berry species.  Ornithologists believe that Yellow-rumps ability to eat the two widely available berries allows them to overwinter farther north than most other warblers. 

I’ve observed scads of little songbirds flitting in my trees and always assumed they’re eating parts of leaves or spring flowers with pollen, and maybe, some insects. But in observing this Yellow-rump as she hops along the limbs and darts through the leaves, it’s clear that she’s focused on insects, rather than nibbling at vegetation for her meals.  Ms. Yellow-rump is a bundle of energy, constantly in movement:  up, down, and all around.   I haven’t witnessed any bug-munching, but most afternoons when I look for her, she’s there, in the trees, hunting for protein.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Yellow-rumps forage on the outside branches of trees and along those limbs in the bottom third of the tree.  That’s exactly where I’ve noticed my warbler and thank goodness for that!  She’d be even more difficult to observe if higher up in the trees.

In winter, Yellow-rumped warblers spend their time in mixed arboreal landscapes–those areas with plenty of trees and fruit-bearing shrubs, like parks and urban gardens, all good habitats brimming with the needed munchies.  In their breeding areas, far north from Central Texas, they concentrate on insect eating, but easily switch to fruits, if available.  Yellow-rumps nest in coniferous trees, the female building the chicks’ homes along branches.  Both parents feed the chicks, which fledge within two weeks.  They grow up so fast!

These hardy warblers are adaptable, which is why their populations are relatively stable.  That said, it’s always a good when gardeners plant for birds:  native plants are best to provide berries and seeds, to provide cover for protection, and to provide a rich, diverse garden habitat.   Also, habitats free of insecticides is a must, since many birds (not only warblers) require insects for themselves and their offspring.

 

And there it is–the famous, often talked about, but only briefly glimpsed–yellow rump!

The flash of that bodacious booty is easily visible–at the correct angle, with tail feathers up–as they bop around the ground or zoom through trees, but catching these busy birds to photograph their famous bums is a little trickier. It requires patience and some good luck.

For more great information on this charming songbird, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or Audubon’s site on the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

What wild things are in your garden?  Please share and leave a link when you post a comment–and happy spring and wildlife gardening!

27 thoughts on “March of the Butter Butts: Wildlife Wednesday, March 2020

  1. I have a flock every winter. This year they were mostly high in the trees. You were lucky to get such great photos. I had to replace my wax myrtles, which they love, and the new ones are not making many seeds yet. I also wanted to tell you that I have lots of bees this week, especially big, fat black ones. They fly slow enough to follow as they stop at every flower.

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    • Oh wow–a flock! The most I’ve ever had hanging around was 3 or 4 and that was several years ago.

      Nice about your bees! Obviously, you’ve got natives who’ve hatched and are ready to pollinate! My blue orchard bees are out now and I’ve seen one or two horsefly-like carpenter bees. The native bees really love the Mountain Laurel blooms, which are in full swing now. Yay spring!!

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  2. Ah Tina, the butter butts are so demure. In fact I think they look like they have hopped off dutch cockery (Delft). Good to know that they are fixated on insects not blossom etc. (I don’t mind blossom damage so much, but I cry when I see the crocuses shredded). I wasn’t sure if you were doing Wildlife Wednesday, but I will link now. My post is also bird orientated:- https://wp.me/pM8Y1-7It

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    • I like that, Allison: ‘hopped off dutch crockery’.:) I don’t have too many birds who shred flowers, but it has happened and yes, that’s a disappointment. Thanks for joining in!!

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  3. Pingback: Trapeze artists … and other high wire performers | Frogend dweller's Blog

  4. I’m just undone by all these mentions of mountain laurel. Oh, I want to see some — but I’d have to travel to do it, since I’ve never seen it down here, in landscaping or otherwise. Maybe there still will be some when I finally get to the hill country.

    Your photos are wonderful. You did such a good job of getting those close-ups. I seem to have lost two photos of what I think was a yellow-rumped warbler in a yaupon at a local nature center. It’s behavior was much like you describe; I finally decided it wasn’t eating the berries, but was hopping around as though it was looking for insects. There was a flock of them at the San Bernard refuge recently. They were making so much noise I finally sat down and watched to see which bird was the source, and butter-butt it was!

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    • I guess I always thought that Mt. Laurel was Texas-wide. My newer one is blooming, most at the top of the tree. My older one has buds, but haven’t opened yet. The blue orchard bees are now out and they like those purple blooms!

      I so enjoy the warblers–mostly Orange-crowneds, Yellow-rumps, and Ruby Crowned Kinglets who, almost every winter, spend their time in my garden. I always grieve a little bit when they leave. I still have a month or so to enjoy them and then they’ll be off. After that-if it’s a good year–the migrants will be through and it’s always interesting to observe who pops by for a bath and a nosh along their long trek north.

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  5. Is two weeks to fledge pretty common for a songbird?
    We’ve seen the return of the skinks (I don’t know that they ever actually left, but they definitely hunkered down.)
    The frogs have quieted in the back yard after about a month of singing.
    And of course the crane flies have returned along with the cleaver, who seem to always partner up in their timing.
    I don’t want to talk about the snails anymore…

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    • I think most birds grow up fast. Obviously, the raptor types take longer to mature, but yeah, I think 2 weeks seems about right. I’ve seen juvenile birds, clearly those who’ve left the nest still hanging out with their parents. But, there’s always that kid. 🙂

      Haha–lots of snails, huh. Interestingly, they’ve never really been much of a problem for me. Not sure why that is, but I’m not complaining.

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    • Oh, that’s interesting that you don’t have any during breeding season. I only see them in winter and so far, it’s just been the Orange-crowned, the Yellow-rumped, and the Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Lots of different ones come through during migration though and that’s fun to see!

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