Text and photos by Ginger Hays (except as noted)
Yellow-rumped warblers ((Setophaga coronate) are a very abundant species of the Wood Warbler family—those small, often brightly colored birds that bird watchers go crazy about during spring and fall migration. Bird watchers affectionately call them “butter butts.” There are two primary subspecies of yellow-rumped warblers: the Myrtle warbler, and Audubon’s warbler. The Myrtle warblers are mostly in the eastern United States and Audubon warblers are mostly in the western part of the country.
I love bird watching and think it is a great entryway activity to get people more attached to and involved in protecting the natural world. I also like the meditative act of being alone in a park, yard, or garden and truly having to slow down to see and hear what is around me. I generally have a camera with me when I go out because it helps me record and remember what I have seen.
The yellow-rumped warblers are rewarding—and at times frustrating—for bird watchers. The rewarding part is that there are a lot of them in North America, so you are likely to see and learn how to identify them. They also often hang out in lower-level tree branches, so they are easier to see. But sometimes there will be such a large flock that everywhere you look, all the birds seem to be yellow-rumps. That’s when it can get a little bit frustrating (at least for me), if you are really hoping to see a variety of birds rather than this one species!
I have met many lovely people on bird walks or hanging out at Monticello Park in Alexandria looking for spring warblers. But just a few weeks ago, I asked a fellow birder her thoughts about yellow-rumps. She said that she likes that they are warblers that you can see in the winter, and though they have more subdued colors in the fall and winter, it is nice because she can watch them more easily when the trees have lost their leaves. This is an interesting aspect to yellow-rumps. Though they do migrate, they don’t go as far south as most warblers, and many stay further north, sometimes as far north as Nova Scotia.
Yellow-rumps use a variety of ways to get their food. They are known to fly out from a branch to catch insects. They can forage on the ground for insects or berries or hang onto a tree trunk or branch. They eat berries from juniper, wax myrtle, Virginia creeper, dogwood, and poison ivy plants. And it is an interesting adaptation that they can digest the wax on juniper and wax myrtle berries. This adaptation enables them to remain further north than other warblers.
If you look at the range map on the eBird website, you will see that yellow-rumps are present in this area in spring, fall and winter. They only leave for the summer months when they breed in northern parts of the U.S. and in Canada.
So, how do you identify these interesting birds? Well, they do have yellow rumps!
They also may have yellow in three places: on the rump, a spot on the side breast, and—especially breeding males—a yellow spot on their crown. Females and fall warblers are more brown overall, while the breeding male has blue gray on their back and crown streaked with black, and a black mask.
Myrtle warbles (Setophaga coronata coronate), are the eastern subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler and they have white throats. These are the yellow-rumped warblers you are likely to see in this area.
There is also a western subspecies, Audubon’s warbler (Setophaga auduboni auduboni), that has a yellow throat, rather than the white throats of the Myrtle warbler. Both of these warblers have what is called a “broken eye ring,” which is white above the eye and white below, but it doesn’t make a full circle.
And to make it interesting, there are other wood warblers with yellow rumps: The magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia), and Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrine) have more yellow underparts and generally are not as brightly colored on the backside as the yellow-rump warbler. They all show up in the spring and fall. (Real warbler experts likely know the progression of when they show up. While I don’t, but it is possible that they could all be here at the same time.)
There is a great presentation about warblers, including the yellow-rump, by Bill Young on the Audubon Society for Northern Virginia website: https://www.audubonva.org/online-programs. He includes fabulous pictures of warblers, most of which he took at Monticello Park.
Finally, I recommend a visit to the bird banding station that usually operates in the spring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I took these two photos there. I was quite moved by the experience of releasing a bird after it was banded!
As I mentioned, I love birding, and love how these little guys show how birding can be rewarding any time of year. It gives one a reason to be outside, to slow down and observe, and while one is focusing on the birds, one generally learns something about the plants and wildlife around them! I hope you find, as I have, that they are a gift that keeps on giving!