On a chilly May morning, a few years back, as I was walking through the north garden, I caught sight of a small warbler darting about in an old apple tree. Quickly, with camera in hand, I stepped over closer to the tree and began taking photographs of what I later discovered to be a Northern Parula (Setophaga americana.) This was a first sighting for me and I was all bubbly inside for the chance to see a songbird I did not recognize. It was exciting to capture a number of photos of what seemed to me a somewhat rare bird of our Western Massachusetts landscape.
The male blue-gray headed Norther Parula would hardly stay still and gave me a challenge, along with a sore neck for my trouble to keep up with him, as he made his way higher and higher towards the top of the apple canopy – a height much preferred by this species. But I did not mind. I felt so lucky that he tolerated my being close by at all, allowing me to see the olive-green patch on his back, while noting two white wing-bars and two white crescent eye rings all at one sitting.
Vivid views of characteristic field marks continued to be revealed, as the warbler busily leapt from twig to twig. A split second frozen in time shows blue-gray wings partly open as his long yellow-orange pointy bill just passes the apple branchlet his little three-toed feet are about to grab hold of. While suspended in the image above, surrounded by fresh-green leaves and buds, the Northern Parula’s complete white underbelly and his yellow breast with splashes of chestnut are clearly visible. There is also a hint of a gray and chestnut band circling his yellow throat. From the tip of his beak to the end of his tail, the smallest of North American wood warblers reaches four and three quarter inches in length.
Keeping his eye on the viewer, as he settles for just a second into a perching pose, the Northern Parula allows a better view of his unique chestnut and gray bib.
Sometimes he appeared to dive into clusters of near opening blossoms. The fact that most were not open did not stop his exploration. But he did not heedlessly tear into them leaving shattered buds in his path.
The Northern Parula’s prowess for opening buds held me in awe. I watched him methodically nudge his beak into just the right crevice at the tip of each bud. He then opened his beak and pried the petals apart enough for him to see inside each tiny flower. Repeating this technique over and over with surprising grace and skill, he continued searching for insects within the petals. These warblers have an appetite for a variety of caterpillars, beetles, bees, flies, and other insects, as well as spiders.
Northern Parulas are most particular about their northern breeding range where they depend on epiphytes, most specifically the lichen Old Man’s Beard (Usnea spp.) for weaving their hanging pouch-like nests. These warblers are found breeding over most of the southern states including parts of Texas, where the females choose Spanish moss as the nest material.
Their favored trees are red and sugar maples, birches, eastern hemlock amongst others within mature forests with nearby streams or swamps. The female will usually choose to weave her nest higher in the canopy of trees. They may use the same nest the following year.
There is a band between the southern and northern breeding ranges where the habitat has been disturbed by either pollution or the cutting of mature forests, and as the epiphytes have disappeared so too have the Northern Parulas.
In Massachusetts Northern Parulas have been given the status of ‘Threatened’ but there is still breeding happening along the coast and Cape Cod. They tend to begin building their nests towards late May or early June, so this fellow might be just passing through on his way farther east or north into Maine or as far as Nova Scotia.
This was my only encounter and I keep hoping to catch another glimpse into the life of this striking warbler. I play recordings of his high trills accompanied with fuzzy buzzing tweets and twitters in hopes of hearing his songs out in the gardens or forest this coming spring.
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