“Witchety! Witchety! Witchety!”
I heard the ringing syllables in a song produced by a small olive-yellow bird. The notes rang loudly from the willow trees crowding a sandy bank along Simerly Creek at my home.
The song alone, with that trademark repetition of the “Witchety” phrase, confirmed the singer as a common yellowthroat, a small warbler fond of skulking in thickets, cattails or any other thick stands of vegetation. Although female and young common yellowthroats are almost drab in appearance, the male is another case altogether. In addition to a jaunty black mask emblazoned across his face, the male sports a thin whitish-gray line that separates the bird’s black mask from the head and neck. True to its common name, common yellowthroat’s show a bright yellow throat as well as some yellow plumage beneath the tail. The back of this bird is a warm olive-brown.
The appearance of a male common yellowthroat matches his skulking lifestyle. He looks the part of a bandit trying, but often failing, to keep a low profile. Although this warbler would prefer to fly beneath the radar, it has one weakness. Common yellowthroats are invariably curious birds. They will respond to squeaking or mechanical bird calls. Unlike some birds that pop into view for a brief look before diving back into cover, common yellowthroats can often be called into view several times during an observation.
This was the case when I watched one of these warblers on July 28. I heard the familiar call before I spotted a young bird foraging in late afternoon at the top of a rock wall that borders my yard. Grass and other vegetation hanging over the wall had attracted the young bird’s attention. With the strength of an Olympic long jumper, the bird kept hurling itself into the air, without benefit of wings, to snatch insects from the underside of leaves and stems. I watched the bird engage in this foraging activity for quite some time. I moved slowly and carefully, which made the bird aware of my presence. The lure of the insects apparently outweighed any fear of me. The young bird continued its foraging for several minutes, probably stopping only once it had eaten its fill.
Common yellowthroats are one of the many warblers that nest in the Northeast Tennessee during the summer months. They can be found from lower elevation to higher ones, but they will usually not be found outside of a habitat that offers dense vegetation to their particular liking. A weedy slope in a backyard, a marshy stand of cattails, or overgrown fields are some places suitable for this noisy if “under the radar” bird.
The common yellowthroat belongs to a genus of warblers known as Geothlypsis. Three other members – MacGillivray’s warbler, mourning warbler and Kentucky warbler – of the genus are resident in the United States and Canada for part of the year.
Others in the genus inhabit ranges mostly within Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. These other “yellowthroats” include Bahama yellowthroat, black-polled yellowthroat, masked yellowthroat, hooded yellowthroat, gray-crowned yellowthroat and Belding’s yellowthroat, a bird named for Lyman Belding, a California naturalist and ornithologist. Robert Ridgway, an American ornithologist known for his work in systematics, which is the is the study of the diversification of living forms, both past and present, and the relationships among living things through time. It’s also the field of study that provides names for organisms, hence Ridgway’s naming of the warbler now known as Belding’s yellowthroat to honor a fellow ornithologist.
Belding also had a lizard – Belding’s orange-throated whiptail – named in his honor by Leonhard Hess Stejneger, a Norwegian-born American ornithologist, herpetologist and zoologist.
The yellowthroat named in Belding’s honor is endemic to the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico and is considered particularly vulnerable to habitat loss as more of its favored cattail marshes and freshwater lagoons in Mexico disappear.
The website All About Birds notes in a profile on the species that male common yellowthroats arrive first on breeding grounds in the spring and begin defending territories.
According to the profile, fighting among males grows more intense once the female birds arrive. Researchers have also found that the black mask of male yellowthroats acts as a trigger for some of this fighting. Some enterprising researchers added a black paper mask to a stuffed female yellowthroat. When placed within view of male yellowthroats, the stuffed bird weathered attacks from territorial males.
The common yellowthroat is one of these birds that benefits from a lawn and garden that are not kept trimmed and manicured. They will only thrive in habitats that offer dense thickets and other tangles of vegetation. To attract birds like the common yellowthroat, keep some corners of your property in a more “natural” state. The neighbors may look askance, but the birds will thank you.
The common yellowthroat hasn’t been my only recent visiting bird. My mom and I got a big surprise on the evening of July 29 when a young bald eagle flew over the house and continued up Simerly Creek in the direction of Woodby Hill and the Unicoi County line. At first I tried to make the bird into a turkey vulture until I realized the flight was all wrong. My mom and I both got a good look at the young eagle before it flew out of sight.
In addition, a wood duck hen is keeping watch over four ducklings at the fish pond at my home.
We’re into the month of August, and the birds are feeling restless. The ruby-throated hummingbirds, scarce most of the summer, have returned with a vengeance. They spend most of their time dueling with each other to contest the more popular sugar water feeders.
Migration has already started for many birds and the pace will quicken in the months ahead. Feel free to share an observation, make a comment or ask a question by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.