What's that Bird?

The Common Yellowthroat

Article and photos by Daniel Robinson 

If you’re walking along the Lawrence Hopewell Trail and you hear a pinched “witchety-witchety-witchety” (listen here) in the tall grass, you’re in the presence of one of my favorite migratory birds – the long-legged, curious and frenetic Common Yellowthroat. Characterized by a brown and olive body with a vibrant yellow throat, these medium-sized warblers have a large head with a prominent black mask and are often referred to as ‘Bandits’ among birdwatchers. They can be seen high-stepping up slender stalks, foraging for insects. The Common Yellowthroat travels north from Central America and covers a range from Texas to northern Canada during spring migration.

While the males are abundant and fearless, the less-colorful females are infrequently seen and tend to hide in the scrub. Like the males, they’re diligent hunters, and you might see one with a mouthful of insects, destined for the open-mouths of their expectant chicks. Occasionally their nest may contain an anomalous egg! In a practice called brood parasitism, Brown-headed Cowbirds will lay their eggs in the nests of other songbirds, often removing one of the nesting bird’s eggs to maintain the total egg-count. One frequent victim of this brazen trick is the Common Yellowthroat. Many birds will unknowingly raise the Brown-Headed Cowbird chick as their own (which is somewhat funny when you know that the adult cowbird is over four-times the size of a Common Yellowthroat). Unlike other birds, the guileful Common Yellowthroat can recognize the Cowbird’s ruse. When a Cowbird egg is spotted, or if their own egg has been removed, the Common Yellowthroat will abandon their nest and then may build a new nest right on top of a parasitized nest.

Common Yellowthroats are quite animated and competitive, and you’ll sometimes see rival males chasing each other out of their territory. When doing so, they may emit a jarring, undulating buzzing call. These noises, along with their standard array of calls, make them fairly easy to locate. When a rival male is calling, they tend to get to a higher vantagepoint in the field, sometimes a milkweed stalk, and sometimes the thorned branch of a wild rose. As a bird lover, and hobbyist photographer, these are the moments I look for – where the bird is interacting with its natural environment in exciting or engaging ways. Photographing these songbirds can be challenging, even though they’re everywhere. At times, they seem to land on every perch except the one that you’re hoping for. Too often, they’ll land for a few seconds and then they’re off before you even have your camera ready. But these near-misses aren’t frustrating – they serve to reinforce the charm of these hyper subjects and as a reminder that breeding season in the field is fraught with constant activity and motion.