Wood warblers are an active group of small birds (generally less than 5 1/2″ in length) and all have long, narrow and sharply pointed bills suitable for searching under loose bark for small insects or plucking them from branches and leaves. Some forage “on the fly” and snatch unsuspecting prey from the air. Most are brightly coloured and boldly patterned and all are very quick and agile. A migrant group, wood warblers begin filtering back into Cape Breton in late April with the arrival of the “scouts” of yellow-rumped, norther parula, black and white and magnolia warblers. As the days lengthen and the temperatures rise, other species return to their niches but for this posting I will concentrate on the early returnees.
Black and White Warbler: The aptly named black and white warbler is about 5″ in length, its size typical of these voracious insect eaters. It is heavily striped lengthwise both above and beneath; its crown, too, is heavily striped. This extremely active and gregarious little bird has no other distinguishing features and, although the male and female of the species are similar, the female’s plumage is somewhat subdued. The black and white forages for small insects, as well as their eggs and grubs, as it moves nervously out along thick tree branches or as it spirals upwards on hardwood trunks in nuthatch-like fashion. Its insistent and loud call notes are distinctive – a series of slurry or buzzy descending and ascending notes; its call note is loud and sharp.
Yellow-rumped Warbler: This is our most common and abundant wood warbler and is usually the first of its kind to arrive in our area each spring. The yellow-rumped is approximately 5 ½” in length and is easily recognized by the bright patches of yellow on its shoulders and its rump. The male is more flamboyant in all seasons and has a beautiful, bright-yellow crown patch. For both sexes – dark blue-grey above, white throat bordered with a dark, inverted “v” and a prominent, dark face patch outlined in white. White wing bars are distinct. Female and young of this species are uniformly duller in appearance and lack the yellow crown patch. The yellow-rumped has a variable song, sometimes rising or falling at the end of a long, clear, whistled trill; its call note is loud and sharp. Yellow-rumps forage in all parts of the canopy and hunt “on the fly”.
Magnolia Warbler: Another of the “yellow-rumped” warblers, the “mag” is smaller, measuring a mere 4¾” in length. Both male and female “mags” are heavily, darkly streaked across a bright yellow breast; underparts are bright yellow as well. A black facemask is separated from a grey head by a thin white eyebrow and both sexes show the diagnostic yellow rump and white wing bars. The magnolia’s song is a series of short, rapid notes that rise abruptly at the end. Look for this lively little bird at low to mid- levels of the canopy where it forages for spiders and other insects in coniferous stands.
Northern Parula: Well-reported, the northern parula is a typically-sized wood warbler about 4 1/2″ in length. Its head is slatey grey-blue, its upper back a rich, luminescent green that gives way to the same deep colour as its head. Its breast is a startling, bright yellow spot highlighted by soft, orange-ish shoulder streaks and its underparts are a crisp, clean white. It sports two white wing bars. The northern parula has a very distinctive song beginning with a loud and insistent buzzy whistle, ascending, and ending with a punctuated, single note. It prefers conifers and here, in our area, it nests high in mature spruce. It prefers small worms and grubs. The male of the species differs from the female by a dark band across its chest. A weak, white eye-ring can be seen in good light. The northern parula is an active bird and flits nervously from branch to branch in search of its prey.