YAKIMA, Wash. — As beginning birder in my teenage years, I still remember quite clearly my first glimpse of this exotic appearing bird. It was 1968 and at Buena Vista Lagoon north of San Diego in California. Through my binoculars, I caught sight of this brilliantly patterned yellow bird with a black mask and somehow convinced myself it must be a rare species. A little perusing through my trusty Peterson field guide revealed it to be the common yellowthroat, a type of warbler. I soon learned this is a well-named species as it is common and widespread across of much of North America.
How to spot one: The male, which sports a black mask, is very distinctive. Females and young birds are much, much plainer and can confuse observers. Once you learn the yellowthroat’s distinctive, choppy song “witchity-witchity-witchity,” detecting this species becomes much easier. Much of the time this furtive bird stays hidden in marsh, vegetation, or thickets. Squeaking or pishing, which are odd noises birders make to illicit a bird’s curiosity, often brings it into view.
Where to look: Marshes are the yellowthroat’s favorite habitat. The easiest spot to find one close to Yakima is along Old Goldendale Road west of Toppenish, as well as on the refuge of the same name. West of the Cascades and over much of eastern North America, much wetter regions than the Yakima area, yellowthroats also occupy wet fields with rank vegetation.
When to look: Yellowthroats begin to arrive in south-central Washington about mid-April, having migrated north from their wintering grounds as far away as Central America. That is when temperatures have warmed enough to assure a reasonable supply of insects. Most depart south in September.
Chow time: Insects are a mainstay of their diet, including mayflies, damselflies, beetles, and small dragonflies and grasshoppers.
Home life: The male follows the female closely in courtship, flying fancily, flicking its wings, while singing and calling. The nest, built by the female, is close to the ground in wet vegetation, a bulky open cup affair made of grass, sedges, bark and ferns. She lays three to five eggs and does all the incubation for about 12 days. The male feeds the female during this phase, but once the young hatch both parents help in feeding the young, which leave the nest after only eight to ten days.
Most species of warblers that nest in North America eat primarily insects and so migrate south of the United States into Mexico, Central America, and even South America during our winter. The common yellowthroat is hardier than many of our warblers with modest numbers wintering across the southern United States.
- Wildlife Moment, focusing on native wildlife, typically runs in Outdoors on the first Thursday of the month, with the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Aububon Society.