Plants and Animals

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From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2014

Common Yellowthroat

During spring and early summer, I can often be found walking the prairies, forests, and wetlands of Shaw Nature Reserve in Franklin County. I think of the area as my “Walden,” peaceful and wild, although nestled close to civilization. One of my favorite visitors to the area is a compact and vociferous warbler called the common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas).

The male common yellowthroat is an archetypical warbler with its vivid yellow throat and black bandit’s mask, bordered with silvery-white. These days, I find the yellowthroat unmistakable but it wasn’t that many years ago that I mistook one for a Kentucky warbler, another yellow bird with black around its face. As I look back at my blunder, which I quickly corrected with a check of my field guide, I have to laugh at myself, but I know that bird identification in the field is a lifelong learning process.

The call of the common yellowthroat is as distinctive as its appearance. The signature call of the male, described as “witchety-witchety-witchety,” is easily discerned from other sounds of the prairie. During a bird workshop last spring, I noticed that the song of the common yellowthroat became immediately familiar to beginning birders.

As a photographer, I appreciate the bold nature of the common yellowthroat. During early summer, they are intrepid, sometimes downright fearless, as they search for mates and defend their territory. Often, as I skulk along the trail with my cannon-like lens and camera, other birds head for cover while yellowthroats stand their ground among the prairie wildflowers and sing as if I’m not even there. It is during that window of time that I have captured my best images of the species, including the image here.

Another characteristic of the common yellowthroat that makes it amenable to photography is its propensity to forage on a variety of insects near the ground, or at least at eye level with the camera, often perching on colorful forbs, such as the spiderwort in the featured photo. Other warblers remain high in the trees, leaving the photographer with a disappointing belly shot with a bright-sky background.

As summer progresses, the common yellowthroat becomes more difficult to photograph as it is no longer distracted by courtship and territorial obligations. During that time I enjoy watching fledgling yellowthroats as they make their way around the prairie, awkwardly grasping stems of Indian grass with their clumsy claws. By the time they are ready to begin their first journey to southern wintering grounds, I can already see the telltale trace of a black mask on each young male.

After the common yellowthroats and other colorful birds of summer depart Shaw Nature Reserve for warmer climes, I begin watching for cold-tolerant visitors, such as dark-eyed juncos and yellow-rumped warblers. The new arrivals always bring their own interesting behaviors to keep me occupied during the harsh days of winter, but in the back of my mind I’m always thinking about the “witchety-witchety” of the spring to come.

—Story and photograph by Danny Brown

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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - vacant
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Brett Dufur
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler