W Week – Warblers

Black-and-white Warbler

I thought this week I would do a W theme. I have several items I want to post about that are all W’s; this first one is Warblers. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had lots of warblers returning and settling in. One of the species that seems to be singing somewhere every time I go out on a walk is this one, the Black-and-white Warbler. They are an abundant species on the rough Canadian Shield, but also found more sparsely throughout much of the rest of Ontario. They nest in deciduous and mixed woodlands, which are extensive in this region. The habitat type is also increasing in Ontario, as abandoned fields slowly return to forest, and they’re one of a number of warblers dependent on such habitat to show a statistically significant increase in the most recent Breeding Bird Atlas. Black-and-white Warblers have a distinctive foraging style, climbing up tree trunks and along branches a bit like a nuthatch; indeed, some earlier names for the species included Creeping Warbler, Pied Creeper, and Black-and-white Creeper. This one’s a male because it is crisp black and white, with a black throat; females lack the dark throat and are more grayish than black.

Nashville Warbler

Here’s another species we’ve seen a fair bit of: Nashville Warbler. Like the Black-and-white, they’re found through much of Ontario. They have a preference for mixed or coniferous forests, and all of the encounters we’ve had with individuals on apparent breeding territory have been in patches of evergreens. They’re flashy little birds, with a gray hood and bright yellow belly. In our region of the province their population seems to be stable, probably because regenerating forest here is mostly deciduous, which doesn’t affect them too much given their habitat preferences.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warblers should be breeding in our forests as well this summer. They’re one of the most abundant migrants in the spring, but most of them carry on past us and head for northern Ontario, and especially northwestern Ontario where they have the highest densities. Like the Nashville, they prefer coniferous and mixed forests, but are less picky than Nashvilles, making do even with small patches. Their population, interestingly, has been on the rise in our region; presumably it’s this generalist nature that allows them to take better advantage of small opportunities. There are two subspecies of Yellow-rumps, one with a yellow throat, and the other with a white throat. Ours has the white throat, and was known as a Myrtle Warbler before the two species got lumped into one. Many birders affectionally refer to them as “Butterbutts” for their namesake plumage feature.

American Redstart

American Redstarts such as this handsome male are fairly common in much of Ontario. They are very much the generalist, nesting in open and semi-open treed habitats, usually successional forests but occasionally more mature forests if they are very open or have large clearings (like along roadsides). Another species that’s on the rise, the mature males are unmistakable in their smart black-and-orange plumage. However, they don’t actually attain these colours until their second summer; their first summer is spend as a drab brownish-gray like the female. Though these young males will occasionally still try to sing and defend a territory where they’re able, not all will attract a female and mate.

There is some debate as to why some species do this, but often it’s associated with maximizing breeding success. In such species, often first-summer males who are inexperienced in holding and defending territories will have very low success compared to more experienced males. Most, if they mate at all, do so through surreptitious forays into the competitor’s territory while he is away for adulterous liaisons with the competitor’s wife. Their dull plumage helps them to fly under the radar, since from a distance they just look like a female, who doesn’t attract the attention that black-and-orange plumage would. The female, for her part, is interested in these sneaky encounters because sperm from many males helps maximize the overall fitness of her clutch; it’s more likely that some of her offspring will succeed through survival of the fittest than if they come from a single parent. She hedges her bets – rather than all or none, she goes with the less risky all or some.

Golden-winged Warbler
Photo by Dan

And finally, a species that is much less common in the region, but which has a stronghold in the Frontenac Axis, one of just a handful such areas in the province, the Golden-winged Warbler. It is a species in decline, one of the most rapidly disappearing in North America, and listed as Threatened in the province. It is being outcompeted by the closely related Blue-winged Warbler, with which it hybridizes in zones of overlap between the two species. Historically in the province, Golden-wings were more northern in range, and Blue-wings more southern; the first Blue-wing wasn’t recorded in the province until the early 1900s, but have continued to expand northward since, pushing the Golden-wing out of the southwestern regions where it was once more plentiful. Hybrids are fertile and usually backcross with one parent species or the other, further diluting the species pools (this does lead to the question of whether they are even separate species at all if their offspring are fertile, or if they’re simply two subspecies with very different plumages). Compounding the problem is loss of habitat on both summer and winter grounds, and nest parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird, which favours the same open, scrubby habitat the Golden-winged Warbler likes.

Beyond just these five, we also have Cerulean, Pine, Black-throated Green and Yellow Warblers, as well as Ovenbird and Northern Waterthrush, back on territory around our house. We can probably expect them to be joined by Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Prairie, Mourning, and Canada Warblers, Common Yellowthroat and Louisiana Waterthrush, all of which are also found in the habitats of Frontenac Provincial Park and surrounding area. Twenty breeding species, what a smorgasbord. Although we won’t encounter all of those during our MAPS surveys, we will probably see most, and I’m really looking forward to those field days.

Warblers in winter’s colours

I’m just wrapping up the last of the warblers I have been working on drawing for the forthcoming book Niagara Birds, edited by John Black and Kayo Roy. The project has been a bit more of an undertaking than I had originally anticipated when I agreed to do it, I certainly had expected to have them all finished by now. But, well, it’s so easy to get caught up in other projects or diversions, chores and errands, and before you know it time has slipped away. I was also amazed at how challenging some of the warblers were to depict in black-and-white, something I hadn’t considered until I actually sat down to do them. So much of how we identify warblers is through their colours, such that those species that lack conspicuous markings are difficult to actually make look like the species they’re supposed to be.

I’ve put the originals up for sale at my online shop on Etsy – better they hang on a wall than languish hidden away in a folder somewhere, and I’ve only got so much wall space in my own house. (I also won’t turn my nose up at some compensation for the time put into them.) A friend of mine tipped me off to Etsy, which is a great forum for artists, artisans and crafters to sell their wares, a virtual craft fair or one-of-a-kind-show without all the travel expenses. Even if you’re not interested in my drawings, be sure to check out the rest of the site, there’s plenty of cool crafts and amazing art to browse through!

Once these are done I start working on preliminary sketches of some blackbirds for a field guide to Brazil. I had 37 warblers to draw; now I have 58 blackbirds to paint. And just in case I have too much down time on my hands, I’ll also have moth photos to edit for the field guide I’m working on with TheMothMan, hopefully some additional form of income-earning writing (I’m still poking around, sending out investigative feelers on various ideas there), and, of course, this blog to update.

These are a few of my favourites of the warbler drawings, but there are many more up online at my Etsy shop. Feel free to pop over to check them out, or to buy something if you’re interested. An original, one-of-a-kind artwork makes a great gift!

Some shameless self-promotion


Northern Hawk-owl – pencil

I think I’ve mentioned in passing once or twice that aside from maintaining a blog about nature stuff I’m seeing, I do have other pursuits as well. One of these was a post I made way back in March, where I included a sketch I did from the field, of a snow-covered trail. I’d made a semi-resolution to try to do more field sketching this year. Well, I haven’t, just so many other things to do, to look at, to photograph.


Northern Waterthrush – ink

That doesn’t mean I’ve abstained from drawing, however. In fact, I’ve done considerably more this year than I do in an ordinary year. Most of it has been on commission. The primary project that’s been keeping me occupied lately is illustrations for a book on the birds of Niagara County, Ontario, edited by noted Ontario birders Kayo Roy and John Black. The book is currently in process (good thing, or my drawings would be a tad late), and I believe will be published sometime early next year.



Hooded Warbler – ink

I’ve been asked to do the warblers for the book. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no Julie Zickefoose, or Debby Kaspari, at least not yet. Hopefully with a bit more practice, and some more years under my belt, I’ll be drawing like they do. But I still feel that I draw well, and am happy with the works I do. It was an honour to be included in the Niagara Birds project. There’s no up-front compensation for the drawings I do for it, but it will be great exposure for me, and practice, plus I do have the opportunity to sell the originals once they’ve been scanned in by the layout designer.


Black-throated Green Warbler – ink

To this end I’ve set up a storefront at Etsy.com through which my pieces will be available for purchase. I’ve tried to price them fairly – both for myself, in terms of receiving reasonable compensation for the time put into them – but also for the buyer, since I’m still a relative nobody in the art world (perhaps I always will be, or perhaps in twenty years I’ll be the next Robert Bateman – okay, I’ll probably never be a Bateman, but it’s nice to fantasize).


Bay-breasted Warbler – ink

My shopkeeper name there is simply Seabrooke, and the store address is Seabrooke.etsy.com. In addition to the Niagara warblers, I also have a pencil drawing there that I did for the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ October issue of OFO News, and a few gouache paintings that I did last year for my own enjoyment. I’ll be putting up the rest of the warblers as they get done and scanned in for the book, as well as other works where I have the original to sell. I invite my readers to swing by and check them out if interested.


Yellow-rumped Warbler – ink

Baillie Birdathon

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Over the last few years, every May I’ve been going out and participating in the Baillie Birdathon in support of the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station here in Toronto. The Baillie is a fundraiser run by Bird Studies Canada in support of bird conservation initiatives in Canada. Participants have the option of directing a portion of their funds raised to a third-party organization of their choice – in my case, TTPBRS. This is the primary source of funds for the programs the station runs, so while I’m not much of a fundraiser at heart, I do try to do my part.

American Redstart

American Redstart

The idea behind the Baillie is that you pick a day, any day, sometime in the month of May, and tally all the species you observe in all or a part of a 24-hour period. You can be anywhere in the world, technically, but most participants tend to stay close to home, or bird a patch associated with their chosen organization. In my case, this would be Tommy Thompson Park, home base of the research station (the station does have programs outside of the park in other parts of Toronto, but this is the primary site).

Eastern White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

I chose to do my birdathon on Tuesday. I cheat a bit when picking my day, since I’m not as limited by other constraints such as a weekday work schedule. So I wait till a day when things are just hopping, and that becomes my day. This was true of Tuesday. I’m not sure what prompted everybody to move in to the site that morning, since the weather wasn’t exceptionally favourable or any different from the previous few days, but there they were.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

During the morning I tallied 23 species of warblers, including a few that were brand-spankin’ newly arrived overnight, “late” migrants that tend to come through in mid- to late May and June, such as Mourning or Blackpoll Warbler. There were also a few straggling “April” migrants, those that come through primarily in April or early May, such as Yellow-rumped or Palm Warbler. The best time for diversity is this mid-spring period, when both ends of the spectrum begin to overlap.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Since I’d done so well through the morning, I opted to head out to other areas of the park and see what else I could turn up. On my “hit list” were some rather notable misses that I’d somehow managed not to see during the morning – chickadee, cardinal, Brown Thrasher, all residents at the station. I also had my sights pegged on Scarlet Tanager, a few late-to-leave winter ducks, and some park specialties such as Black-crowned Night-Heron, Great Egret and Canvasback. I did manage to track down all these species with some hunting around.

Black-crowned Night-heron

Black-crowned Night-heron

However, I also missed a few that I’d figured would be pretty easy ticks. Savannah Sparrow, all these acres of meadow and where are you? Eastern Meadowlark, have you chosen not to nest here this year? And those several Orchard Orioles that have been hanging around the last week, disappeared. Rock Pigeon, what kind of birdathon doesn’t have a pigeon?

Turtles and blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird and turtles

I did get to see a couple of interesting things while out. One was the previous Black-crowned Night-heron, dead set on breaking off that branch to take back to the nest. He spent several minutes giving it his best shot, but eventually had to give up and moved off to another tree to try a different one. The second was the above female Red-winged Blackbird which was poking around at the edge of the pond looking for a good soggy old cattail leaf to take back to weave into her nest, while a line of turtles looked on.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

I wrapped up the day with 82 species, which I felt was respectable given that I spent the first seven hours at the station, largely within the lab, and only birded for an additional three hours beyond that, during the afternoon lull period. Aside from the variety of warblers, the indisputable highlight of the day was a female Summer Tanager that very obligingly made its way through an area where I just fortuitously happened to be checking the mistnets. It had been discovered the day before by the station coordinator, and has hung about for a few days now. It’s the first record of the species for the station, and they aren’t recorded very often in Ontario in general during any given year.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about "A Few Birds of May on Vimeo", posted with vodpod

The TTPBRS coordinator pieced together a video of many of the species passing through the station currently. I could’ve sworn it included the Summer Tanager, but in re-watching it now I don’t see it, so perhaps he’s left that bit for another video. If you follow this link to the video’s page, you can watch it in HD (for those with HD-capable monitors – mine isn’t).