Here along the Texas coast there are a number of warbler species that spend the winter with us. They are sometimes fairly easy to locate in the leafless oak, ash, elm and other deciduous trees, but most often they will stick to the live oaks, laurel cherries, yaupon holly, wax myrtle and other evergreen vegetation as they forage for insects and spiders. Warblers seem to never be still as they hop from one leaf cluster to the next gleaning for the next tasty tidbit. Training your binoculars on the leaf movement in the tree will allow views of the bird and plumage indicators leading to clues for identification.
Our most common winter warblers are Orange-crowned, Wilson’s and Yellow-rumped. Orange-crowned warblers are a dusky olive green above with olive yellow under parts and the breast is faintly streaked. As the name implies, they do have an orange crown but it is rarely visible in the field. It sounds sort of plain, but is a very pretty little bird and the yellow can be quite striking but not like our next winter visitor. The Wilson’s Warbler is bright yellow underneath continuing up to a yellow face with a black cap. The bird’s back is dusky olive green. The Yellow-rumped Warbler is aptly named as there is a patch of yellow feathers at the base of the back right above where the tail starts. This patch of feathers is visible when the bird flies and often when they perch it can be seen if the wings are partially extended. This characteristic has earned this bird the nickname of “butter butt”. The rest of the plumage is streaked in variations of browns and greys except they have a little yellow on their flanks. This particular bird comes in two flavors. The ones we have here are called Myrtle Warblers. Out west their variety is the Aubudon’s Warbler. It looks similar to ours but has a yellow throat. They are the same species but look slightly different and so have two different names. You almost never see just one Yellow-rumped Warbler because they often travel in flocks which can be quite large. If you look carefully you can sometimes find one of the western Audubon’s Warblers hanging out with its cousins.
All of these winter warblers can be found in a fairly wide variety of habitats. They may be in an open field, at the grassy edge close to woods or in the forest canopy. Orange-crowned warblers will come to a suet or hummingbird feeder in your yard. All these birds like dripping fresh water and all have been seen in the bird bath at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. They are also known to fly catch from high in trees.
Not only are these birds beautiful and a joy to watch, they are an important and critical part of our ecosystem. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center notes that birds play “a critical role in reducing and/or maintaining low populations of insect prey” in natural systems. Birds eat millions upon millions of insects and spiders each year. We don’t want to find out what our world would be like without birds providing the ecosystem services they furnish.