What a Bum

A Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata, has finally arrived in my winter garden!

Most years I begin observing winter warblers in November. This migratory season, I’ve spied a zippy, hard-to-photograph Ruby-crowned Kinglet (a few times) and a female Orange-crowned Warbler, who is now making daily visits to the the peanut and suet feeders. But the Yellow-rumps have been tardy, or maybe just elusive.

This Yellow-rumped is a Myrtle Warbler, easily identified because of its white throat. During breeding and nesting season, Myrtle Warblers tend to spend time East and North, the Audubon species hangs out in the West. In winter, I’ve seen both species in my garden, but usually, it’s the Myrtle that is more common. I also think this one is a fella bird, given the little dab of yellow on his head. He isn’t yet in breeding colors, so perhaps he’s a hatch year dude, not quite out of his juvenile stage?

But he does rock that yellow rump. What a cute bum!

I’m glad to see the yellow rump flashing in the trees and hope that, instead of being a flash-in-the trees, he’s a daily visitor and that some of his butter-butt buddies will join him.

Winter Texans

There’s a term for northern folks who come to Texas to enjoy a milder winter: winter Texans, also known as Snowbirds.

Some actual birds are winter Texans too, and in my Austin garden they’re unlikely to see snow (not impossible, but less common in these past few decades). Nonetheless, these winter birds are here for rest and good food sources, and to gear up for spring/summer breeding season. In my garden, they enjoy the pond and its surrounding trees and shrubs.

No snowbirds here, but the warblers are warbling and the phoebes are phlying.

Groan. That was bad. Really bad. Apologies.

As these winter Texans settle in for the next months, joining local, year-round birds, they’ve been active in their everyday lives, which thankfully provides nice a distraction for my everyday life.

I’ve seen a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula, and have observed one–or more–Orange-crowned Warblers, Leiothlypis celata. But the stars of my wildlife garden show recently have been a crew of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Setophaga coronata. I’ve counted as many as 8 at a time, all fluttery and flighty in the trees and zippy around the pond. They come, hang out, and eventually make their way to the public bath–a favorite spot for birds of all kinds. It’s hard to count the Yellow-rumps as they’re in nearly constant motion, but I have been lucky with the camera a few times, capturing some brief, quite moments in between the winged energy that defines these busy birds.

I was excited when I downloaded this photo. It’s a nice capture of an adorable little Yellow-rumped Warbler face, avian colors complementing arboreal hues. But what interested me is the shading of the throat.

There are two subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warblers: Audubon’s and Myrtles. Audubon’s have a yellow throat, Myrtles’ throats are white. I’ve seen both kinds of Yellow-rumps in the past, but in winter and spring, it’s the Myrtles I see around here. I thought that the shading might indicate that this one is a juvenile Audubon’s, the yellow coloring just beginning. Yellow-rumps here during winter and lack their breeding plumage, so they’re softer in coloring, less showy than during the spring and summer when they’re attracting a mate. After looking at photos on Cornell’s site, I’ve decided that this one is a Myrtle and probably a juvenile, its adult white throat not quite established.

It’s a cute face, though–and Myrtle or Audubon’s–nothing changes that! Until my Red Oak tree loses its leaves (soon!), the little warblers are hard to see. It’s movement I look for, and I was pleased to follow this one as it darted, hither and thither, in the tree. Once it landed, I trained the camera to its perch.

This one waited in the wings for a dip in the pond, but landed closer to its target as it checked out the surroundings for crafty cats or other dangers. Two years ago I planted a Rough-leaf Dogwood, Cornus drummondii, by my pond and, while still only shrub sized, it’s proven itself as a good stopping-off point for birds going to and from the pond.

Here we are–arrived at the pond and rocking the yellow rump! The yellow dab of feathers, noticeable at a quick glimpse when the birds are in flight, are more challenging to see once the bird lands. Unless they turn just so, I don’t always see their namesake.

I like these three bathing beauties, each with their yellow highlights, under the wings and at the rump.

I think the one at the left is a mature female, mostly because of white streak along her eye and patch of beige across its cheek. The one at the bottom/middle is probably a juvenile female. She looks similar to the first one, but lacks the eye streak and defined beige ear patch. All I know about the one on the right is that she has a yellow butt.

Butter butts. That’s what wacky birders call Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Not that I’m a wacky birder.

Here’s a couple with differing views. The female, looks left and the male, looks right.

The male is definitely not in its breeding colors; his dark eye patch would be more obvious and dramatic. He’s probably another juvenile, spending his winter here as he matures. As much as I like to see the yellow side patches and yellow rumps, I like this shot because none of those spots of butter yellow are visible on either bird. One may appreciate their pretty faces, graceful forms, and dark/light markings.

This adult male Myrtle Yellow-rump Warbler splashed with vigor and fluffed his feathers with fanfare.

While he’s not in full breeding regalia, you can see that his plumage is richer in color than the other birds of these photos, females and juveniles all.

The Yellow-rumped Warblers enjoy the pond, but they also bop along the branches of trees and shrubs, nibbling insects as they go. They’re known as birds who catch insects as they fly (both the birds and the insects). Impressive as their aerial antics are, they’re outmatched by the flycatcher acrobatics of the Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe. One of these has been looping about my garden, diving here, perching there, for several days.

I often see one or two during spring migration, but have never had one in my garden at any other time of year. The maps suggest that Central Texas is in the ‘nonbreeding’ area, bordering the ‘year-round’ region, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m thrilled to see this swooping charmer and even happier when he rests. Then, aside from admiring his flying skills, I can appreciate his good looks.

I hope you find time to go outside, weather permitting, or just look out the window. Even in this dark time of year, as plants go dormant, days grow shorter, and we all hunker down, it’s remarkable how much wildlife activity there is in the garden. That activity wants only observation.

This post ends my garden blogging meme, ‘Wildlife Wednesday’. I’ll still post-n-photograph wildlife in the garden, but not necessarily on a first-Wednesday-of-the-month schedule or as a formalized garden meme, but rather, as I’m inspired.

I hope that hosting this meme was enjoyable and educational for participants and readers alike. I hope that learning how easy and gratifying bringing nature to your own garden inspired some gardeners to abandon dependence on chemicals and limit turf in favor of a healthier ecosystem. How, by gardening with native plants and plants which increase and sustain diversity of life, the novice and experienced gardener helps heal the world.

Thanks for reading!!

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!