On a bird walk at Crabtree Nature Center in early May, when trees still stood leafless though very warm weather had suddenly blown in, one small bird stood out like a little feathered lemon. A couple weeks later, more of the flying lemons had arrived. Even though the trees now were more fully foliated, the yellow birds were easy to spot. They were yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia), members of the colorful wood warbler family, once known also as wild canaries.
Birders eagerly await the arrival of warblers each spring. Their bright plumage and varied songs bring proof that spring indeed has arrived, as they follow their age-old migration routes. The yellow warbler has a good distance to fly; it winters in Central America and northern South America. Its appearance in the Barrington area brightens the landscape and the heart. Its song – “Sweet-sweet-sweet/I’m so sweet!” is a clear, pure melody that enlivens the early days of spring.
The yellow warbler is the only completely yellow member of its family. There are, in fact, other warblers that are mostly yellow, but they have additional markings such as black caps (Wilson’s warbler) or dark wings (prothonotary warbler). The male yellow warbler has fine, reddish rays on its breast; otherwise it is only yellow, with coal black eyes. Another bird it could possibly be confused with is the American goldfinch, but the latter has black wings and a black cap.
Unlike most warblers which only pass through on their way to northern breeding grounds, the yellow warbler nests in the Barrington area. It also breeds in most of the continental United States and Canada, extending its range to Alaska and making it the most widespread of all warblers. Its preferred habitat is short stands of willows bordering wetlands, though it can be seen almost anywhere – even in town – as it seeks out a suitable place to build a nest.
The nest often is buried deep within thickets of willow, honeysuckle, wild rose, or dogwood. It’s a cup formed of bark strips, grasses, and plants, adorned with spiderwebs and plant down and placed in the fork of a branch. The brown-headed cowbird often parasitizes the nests of yellow warblers. Robert Ridgeley wrote in his 1889 Birds of Illinois, “When the Cowbird drops its egg into [the yellow warbler’s] nest, it very ingeniously covers it over with a layer of the nest material, and raises the walls to a sufficient height, thus building a new nest upon the old one, and completely incarcerating the parasitic egg….”
Spring and summer are the seasons for spotting yellow warblers in Barrington. The most likely places will be wetland fringes and orchards. Listen for the clearly whistled notes and look for the brilliant yellow. You may think you’re seeing a flying lemon!
Would you like to learn about the Barrington bird population with guided tours from Wendy? Here are the dates and locations for her series of upcoming spring bird walks.
- May 29, 7:00 a.m.
Headwaters* (parking lot on Wichman Rd. off north side of Rt. 72; ½ mile west of Rt. 59)
- June 6, 7:00 a.m.
Galloping Hill* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
- June 17, 5:00 p.m.
Galloping Hill* (as above)
*indicates a more strenuous hike
Walks are free though space is limited and RSVP’s are required. Please RSVP to: Daniel Wear (312) 453-0230, Extension 2010 or firstname.lastname@example.org and let them know how best to contact you should that be necessary.
Before you head out, please be sure to check the Citizens for Conservation website for any last minute changes or cancellations. Waterproof boots are strongly recommended and don’t forget your binoculars!
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.