Home for the holidays

The small, yellow warblers who color Valley skies

BY ANITA WESTERVELT

TEXAS MASTER NATURALIST

They’re tiny, they’re quick, they’re wily. They’re warblers — certainly the thrill of spring and fall migration — and lucky is the Rio Grande Valley yard where some species choose to spend the winter.

Warblers are skittish. They dart through crisscross branches in the canopy of a tree, snagging insects. They hardly perch for any length of time before jetting off, performing aerial feats, busily feeding through the daylight hours.

Warblers are some of the smallest birds found on the North American continent, typically known for their long migrations from South America and the West Indies to northern Canada and back. Their sizes range from about 4.25 to 5.75 inches in length.

Yellow-rumped warblers are probably the most prevalent species to winter in the Valley. Their name gives them away. Spend time watching this little bird and you’ll see sporadic flashes of yellow. The most prominent patch is just above their tail feathers.

During winter, yellowrumped warblers are likely to be in areas with fruiting shrubs and trees. In addition to insects, seeds and berries, they will drink juice from fallen oranges and tree sap.

Orange-crowned warblers winter farther north than most other warblers. They are tiny, thin and look like a dark, olive-green peapod, except for a sharp, pointed beak and hint of yellow under the tale. The orange crown is rarely visible unless the bird is agitated.

These busy birds forage low in shrubs and then flit rapidly to tree tops. They navigate vine tangles and other vegetation, picking insects from leaves and buds. Their diet includes ants, beetles, spiders, flies and caterpillars. In winter, they eat fruit, berries, seeds, and plant galls. They also will pierce the base of flowers to get at the nectar and sometimes visit hummingbird feeders.

Yellow-throated warblers might choose to stay in the Valley for the winter, too, although they also migrate to the West Indies, Mexico and Central America. They frequent palm trees in some of their winter range.

This warbler has a different foraging habit than the quick, erratic movements of most warblers. The yellowthroated warbler creeps along inner branches, twigs and in the foliage, generally in the upper parts of trees. They pick insects from the bark and bark crevices.

The yellow-throated warbler’s foraging habits and markings are similar to the black-and-white warbler — another warbler that may choose to winter in the Valley. Black-andwhite warblers are pickers and probers. They eat insects and spiders, and insect larvae and egg masses, which means they don’t have to wait until an insect emerges in order to find food — a trait that allows them to be one of the first spring migratory warblers to pass through the Valley.

To attract warblers to your yard in the winter, several birding websites recommend putting out sunflower seeds, raisins or suet, or a suet and peanut butter mix.

Three native Valley plants that produce berries noted to attract wintering warblers are snake eyes (Phaulothamnus spinescens), cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) and coma (Sideroxylon celastrinum).