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American Redstart

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Shock and Awe in Action!

The number of birds that spend the summer in our region is quite amazing. And fun, as there are some really unique and interesting species. Counted among them is the American Redstart. Though it is a common bird, most folks around here have probably never seen one. But if you know where to look, they are quite easy to find. They are worth the effort. 

The American Redstart is a new world warbler that spends its off-season—our winter—in Central and South America. In our region it starts showing up in May and they’ve already begun heading south by August, with a few still passing through in September. So now’s the time to head out in search of this remarkable little bird. 

The American Redstart is named for the coloration of the male. These are wee little birds, about the size as a small sparrow, but very distinctively and brightly colored. The male is black and orange, with the orange sometimes verging on red; whereas the female is yellow and gray. Both birds have white bellies. Though the colors seem simple enough to remember, it is the color pattern that you need to keep in mind. The orange on the male and the yellow on the female are distinctive and identifying. Whereas the males are predominantly black and the females gray, they sport their reds and yellows on broad wing bars, prominent patches on their long tails, and brightly colored crescents on the side of their chests. There is nothing else like it!

What makes these busy birds so much fun to watch is how they hunt for insects, their primary food source. They busily flit about, flashing their wings and fan-like tail in a sudden, coordinated motion, intending to startle hidden prey. Sort of like ‘shock and awe.’ Potential prey reveals their location by their startled movements. Now you can understand why the color pattern is so important to these birds. Good looks are their bread and butter. 

The birds can also be located by the male’s song. Listen for a tsee-tsee-tsee SEE or a ptsee-ptsee-ptsee PTZEE. In spite of their bright coloration, they can be at first hard to find in the trees they occupy. But once located, they are easier to see and keep track of. But be quick with the binoculars; they rarely rest for more than a moment. They move about more laterally, from tree to tree to shrub and back again, than vertically—up and down the trees. 

Like any bird species, they must be found in their preferred habitat. For example, you won’t find Red-winged Blackbirds in the middle of a coniferous forest or White-winged Crossbills in a cattail swamp. By definition (at least in part) a species is a bird that exploits a particular habitat, so as to minimize competition with other species. Granted, there are other components to that definition, but it is essential to understand the relationship between any given species and its preferred habitat. 

For the American Redstart, head for busy deciduous thickets—alders and willows—that are both near water and larger, more mature forests. My experience is that they prefer the medium-sized trees that are surrounded by shrubs—not too dense, but not too thin. Unfortunately, this is ideal habitat for mosquitoes too! And keep an ear out for the male’s weak song. Follow the song.

Evidently, the brighter the coloration of the male, the more breeding success he will have. Color must be an indication of reproductive health. You might stumble upon a gray and yellow Redstart singing like a male, because it is. Young males may attempt to breed even before they get their full breeding colors. You can’t fault them for trying. 

There you go, another opportunity to add one more illustrious species to your life list. Want to see an American Redstart? Then you better apply the bug spray, because the mosquitoes will find you as you try to find the redstarts. See, birding isn’t for the faint of heart. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birding, A Bird in Hand, American Redstart

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