By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
If you’ve been truly bitten by the birding bug, you spend hours pouring over the bird guides, oohing and aahing at this bird and that one, and this second American bird in the series is probably on your most-wanted list. Some of the ‘ooh aah’ birds prove disappointments when seen in real life. Their colors are muted or their behavior not satisfying. Not so with this species, it is an overachiever.
This is the American Redstart, known in Latin as Setophaga ruticilla, the ‘red-tailed moth-eater.’ My first experience with this species, actually a wood warbler, goes back to the early 1950’s when it was possible to journey from the Madaket Road to the Hummock Pond Road on a magical lane known as Hawthorn Road. The dirt road actually wound through a marvelous forest of hawthorn trees. These formed a vicious and impenetrable thicket with their mighty thorns. It was here that my mentor, Edith Andrews, had told me to look for redstarts. I rode along on my bike until I heard a song that was new to me. It sounded a bit like a Yellow Warbler, but different. After I made some spishing sounds into the bushes, out came the songster. Here was my first redstart, a male clad in flashy orange and black, smaller than I expected, but continually in motion.
Indeed that’s what strikes you about redstarts. Their diet is one hundred percent insects and many of them are caught on the wing. So, the birds continually dart this way and that, and as they do, they create a kaleidoscope of color. They are mostly jet black above, but there are brilliant orange panels in their wings and tail that they display by fanning their tails, letting a wing droop, or extend. It is as if they are using their colors to confuse the insects they are trying to catch. Occasionally they drop, like a spinning orange and black leaf, toward the ground, following a caterpillar or other prey they have dislodged.
Bird books show redstarts frozen in an illustration, but seeing them in real life is another dimension. Of course, up to now, we’ve been discussing what an adult male American Redstart looks like. The females and young birds follow the same color pattern, but in grays, olive greens, and yellows. But the behavior is the same. On our island, you probably see five "yellowstarts" for every redstart. But it just makes the males more appreciated when they do show up.
On Nantucket, these are warm season birds, common when migrating north in May, and south, August through October. They are rare in mid-summer but they are one of the six warbler species that nest here regularly. This year they are only being reported out near the end of the Wauwinet Road, but other years they have nested on Polpis Harbor Road and near the Hidden Forest. They probably still nest in the aforementioned stand of hawthorns.
American Redstarts are true neo-tropical migrants. That is, all of them depart south from the U.S. In Cuba, they are abundant in winter and a local favorite, known as ‘Candelita’ – ‘Little Torch’. But they are also common throughout Central and Northern South America. They are such a favorite in many countries that they have been chosen as the symbol for the organization "Partners in Flight". Their mission is to bring people’s attention to the needs of these tiny mites of color who make the dangerous flight over thousands of miles from the tropics up into our area and then back every year.
Redstarts continue to sing on territory until their young are fledged in mid-July. If you are fortunate enough to catch one in song (even the females sing occasionally), the whole bird seems to vibrate in cadence to the melody. After nesting, the birds disperse and the fall migration starts. They gradually become more common here, but in the fall you must think ‘yellow’ rather than ‘red’. It’s mostly the hatch year birds that follow the coastal migration route. If you see a tiny bird, flashing yellow and gray as it chases something through the shrubbery of your garden, you have found a redstart. They are easily seen until the end of October and a few into November, although this species has never been found on our Christmas Bird Counts.
Watch next week for the final bird in the American series. Think big!
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m., and on Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6:30 a.m., all leaving from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.