Plants and Animals

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

We woke to falling snow on a Friday morning last winter, and I noticed a flash of yellow as I surveyed the surrounding fields for wildlife. A smallish bird was flittering from limb to limb in my favorite cedar tree, the one with all of the powder-blue juniper berries. I knew right away it was a yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata), Missouri’s winter warbler. When we think of winter birds in Missouri, several come to mind including cardinals, titmice, juncos, and chickadees. Most warblers have migrated south to exotic locations like the Yucatan Peninsula by late fall, but yellow-rumped warblers have no trouble enduring Missouri winters. I used to think yellow-rumped warblers were simply more tenacious than other warblers, but I later learned that their unique ability to digest a variety of berries allows them to thrive much farther north in winter than other warblers that depend on insects to survive.

I decided to set up a blind near the cedar tree before I departed for work, hoping that it would blend into the scenery by the next morning. It continued to snow throughout the day and by the time I made it home, the blind was already sagging under the weight of fresh powder. It was too late to try for a photograph so I prepared my gear and went to bed. When the promise of morning finally arrived, I headed down the hill and began my stand even though I knew it would be at least an hour and a half until I’d have enough light for a shot. It wasn’t long before I began to doze. I awakened at sunrise to find the cedar tree devoid of avian activity and when shooting time finally arrived, the warbler did not.

By lunchtime I headed to the house for some fireplace time. As I sat by the fire I started thinking about how goldfinches fed on coneflowers next to my driveway in the summer and how they were completely unafraid of my truck as I arrived home each afternoon. My new plan would be to drive my truck down the hill and park it near the cedar tree. There was a good chance I’d get stuck in the snow but I could always pull it out with the tractor. Shortly after lunch I made my second stand. I’ll never know if it actually improved my chances for a photo, but my truck was much more comfortable than my hunting blind and I could even listen to the radio to break the monotony of staring at the lonely cedar tree.

Just as I began to settle in, a small bird in drab plumage landed in the tree and began feeding on the tiny blue cones. A flash of yellow confirmed it as a female yellow-rumped warbler. As I began to photograph the female, a second bird landed before me and I instantly knew it was what I’d been looking for—a male yellow-rumped warbler! Although its winter coat was subdued, it was a sight to behold and I was gratified to capture its image.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

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