BRENT PENNINGTON A female Yellow Warbler hunts for insects in the brush around her nest at Sapsucker Woods, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, NY, on the morning of 21 May 2015.

For me, one of the sure signs that the spring/summer birding season has begun is my first sighting of a Yellow Warbler.  These bright, active, and sometimes cheeky little birds are hard to miss and their presence in NEPA is an announcement that the spring migrants have returned.

I find Yellow Warblers often, and that’s partly because they are a fairly common species, but also because I tend to visit environments that appeal to them.  Yellow Warblers are brush-dwellers; they love shrubby, brush-filled locations where they can move about their activities within – or right near – the safety of a good wall of greenery.

BRENT PENNINGTON A female Yellow Warbler hunts for insects in the brush around her nest at Sapsucker Woods, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, NY, on the morning of 21 May 2015.

Because of this, you don’t often find them at any great height – in my experience they are almost always at six feet or lower.  As with most shrub-dwellers, spotting one is often best accomplished by learning to look for the tell-tale “shaking branch.”  If you’re viewing a spread of brush you’ll see any effect the wind has on it, and you’ll also notice any branches that seem to be shaking or moving on their own, or against the motions of the wind.  This is your cue that there’s almost certainly a bird moving on that branch, out of sight within the brush.  Watching that area with patience will usually result in a sighting as the bird emerges.

Yellow Warblers are almost always in motion, hopping along branches with the brush or moving from one section to another in short jumps.  As they work their way along a branch, they’ll usually emerge from within the brush at some point and will move about on the outer surface of the shrub before diving back in.  That’s when you need to be ready with the camera.  They may work an outside branch for a minute or two before moving on – and if spooked, they’ll return to safety in the dense heart of the brush.

BRENT PENNINGTON A female Yellow Warbler hunts for insects in the brush around her nest at Sapsucker Woods, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, NY, on the morning of 21 May 2015. BRENT PENNINGTON A female Yellow Warbler hunts for insects in the brush around her nest at Sapsucker Woods, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, NY, on the morning of 21 May 2015.

Yellow Warblers feed on the insects that make their homes within the brush, so it makes sense that the warblers make their homes there as well.  Their nests are about average sized, but are well hidden within their brushy environment.  I’ve only found one nest in the past several years, which is pictured below, and on that instance I really doubt I’d have seen it at all if the female warbler hadn’t been moving to and from it while she was feeding.

BRENT PENNINGTON Yellow Warbler nest, with the top of an egg showing, at Sapsucker Woods, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, NY, on the morning of 21 May 2015.

I’ve had good luck viewing Yellow Warblers from both on the water via kayak, and on land.  For several years before I bought the kayaks, I could dependably go to Fords Pond in May and June and walk along the dirt road along the pond’s west shore.  Opposite the pond the road is edged with a hedgerow of brush that separates it from the hayfields beyond, which makes it an ideal Yellow Warbler habitat.  Finding three or more warblers along the length of this hedgerow wasn’t uncommon.

As I mentioned, these guys can be a little cheeky at times.  They are often more interested in feeding than in my presence, and are therefore pretty tolerant towards photography.  The only real trick with these guys is monitoring their movements within the brush so that when they do emerge, you’re pre-focused in about the right spot to quickly acquire them and get your photos before they move back out of sight.

BRENT PENNINGTON A female Yellow Warbler hunts for insects in the brush around her nest at Sapsucker Woods, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, NY, on the morning of 21 May 2015.

Among the warblers – which are often regarded as the most colorful, and therefore some of the most desirable bird photo subjects – the little Yellow Warbler is a great place to start.  Their prefered habitat is easily accessible to most people, and their tolerance for people makes them much easier to work with than other birds.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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