Welcome to Yellow-rumped Wanderers, a special production in collaboration with Will Valentine, producer of the Will’s Birdbrain podcast. Will is an amazing birder based in Maine whose stories focus on celebrating common birds and how we can all benefit by getting to know them. This production is longer than my normal narrated podcasts: over an hour dedicated to yellow-rumped warblers and the similarities between their lives and ours. We recorded this podcast in April of 2023. Enjoy this wide-ranging conversation, which also includes a story I narrated about watching spring yellow-rumped warbler migration near Helena, Montana.

American tree sparrow.
An American tree sparrow near Helena, MT in late winter.

SHANE NARRATION: February 2019 was a bitter month in Helena, Montana, with arctic air masses and deep snow. I didn’t understand how the American tree sparrows managed to survive, overwintering in this small valley among the mountains. But March’s strengthening sun melted the snowy blanket and brought the return of the western meadowlarks, singing above the matted dead grasses. And when April 13th brought the first yellow-rumped warbler, it was clear that spring had arrived. 

A yellow-rumped warbler flits among the still-dormant branches of a chokecherry near Helena, MT in April.
A yellow-rumped warbler flits among the still-dormant branches of a chokecherry near Helena, MT in April.

WILL: Winter in Maine can be just as bitter as the colder months of Montana. I’m Will, joining Shane as he reminisces on a storied encounter with one of the most common birds in North America, the yellow-rumped warbler. Thank you for letting me tag on, Shane.  

SHANE: Thank you, Will. It’s so wonderful to be here with you. I’m really excited for our conversation.

WILL: And I’m excited to talk about yellow-rumped warblers because they’re one of those common birds that I did not know existed before I got into birding and birds. They’re all around us all the time, but they’re kind of just small enough that you can’t see them unless you’re really looking at them.  

SHANE: Yeah. Similar story for me. I remember the first spring that I saw a yellow-rumped warbler returning in an apple tree and it was so colorful and just like, wow, I didn’t know we had birds like that around.  

Yellow-rumped warbler.
Yellow-rumped warbler.

WILL: They are all around, so all over the US, United States and North America, and they’re one of those birds that migrates. So they’re in different spots throughout different times of the year, just like the tens of thousands of US citizens that are considered “snowbirds,” or people who migrate to warmer climates during the winter—like a bird. I think that’s like 99.9% of the population of Maine, or at least the older population. So like birds, people tend to enjoy traveling, whether it’s to avoid unpleasant weather or simply for a vacation. Have you done much traveling?  

SHANE: Yeah, so I did a lot of traveling when I was young, Will, my parents actually lived on opposite sides of the country. So I spent a lot of time in Idaho and a lot of time in North Carolina and some time in California as well. And that was actually before I really got into birding and in hindsight I really wish I had known my birds then because there undoubtedly would’ve been yellow-rumped warblers in all three of those places and they would’ve been doing different things in all of them. But it was definitely interesting to be in three such different places both in terms of nature and culture. And how about you, Will, have you done much traveling?  

WILL:  I have. I’ve been traveling my whole life. I have kind of a similar family situation. So my family’s spread out all over the country. I always joke I have family in Florida, California, Washington, and now I’m in Maine. So we’ve got all the corners covered. But as a child, I grew up in Tennessee, east Tennessee (go Vols!) and then I moved to Seattle, Washington. So I’ve spent most of my time in Tennessee and Washington and of course now I’m in Maine, so all places that are great to see yellow-rumped warblers.

But of course I was kind of similar to you in another vein of like I didn’t know about birds when I was doing all of this traveling when I was younger. So I was like, dang, my life list could have been triple what it was now if I knew about these things I was seeing. But yeah, now I try and travel as much as possible whether it’s just, you know, a 30-minute trip away to see a park or a longer flight or road trip.  

SHANE: Wow, that’s awesome. I love to hear those parallels in our story. That’s so fascinating. And the life list thing too—what a regret!

WILL: I know, but I mean this is the whole point of birding. It’s like you never know what you’re going to see or when you’re going to see it. And a major theme of my podcast, it’s like it’s never too late to start birding wherever you are. So whether you’re in a city or in the country, they’re all around us. Common birds are just as cool as exotic birds. 

A yellow-rumped warbler forages among low branches during spring migration.
A yellow-rumped warbler forages among low branches during spring migration.

SHANE: Totally. Yeah. And that’s something I’ve noticed in my traveling as an adult too. So like right now I’m living in Montana but I’m actually right now in Seattle, Washington visiting friends. So it’s not all that far away, but in terms of the climate and the birds, it’s so different. And guess what, there are yellow-rumped warblers here in Seattle right now. I think they’re probably just starting to come back to Montana, but they aren’t there during the winter.

And like you say with the common birds, that’s just such a fascinating thing to me is seeing how the same species of bird that I may know in one place, then I go to somewhere different and recognize it and it’s like in a completely different community and it’s doing different things and it’s so cool. It’s such a cool lens to me in terms of getting to know that community. And they’re just like us I guess, travelers.  

WILL: And yellow-rumped warblers are very well traveled. They can migrate as far as Canada to South America, Panama, 2,000 miles. So it’s interesting you mentioned how sometimes you see the same birds in different places doing different things. I guess that’s kind of like us, like when we’re traveling sometimes we do different things in different areas. So if I go to Florida, you can best bet I’m gonna be in the water swimming in the beaches. Meanwhile in Maine I’m not swimming in those beaches, they’re way too cold. So you know, it’s just kind of another way for us to empathize, I think, with birds.  

SHANE: Yeah, totally. I mean it does blow my mind all the time whenever I think about migration. I have some clue about the science, but it’s one of those things to me that it’s like reading about something versus actually understanding what that’s like. How is it that this bird that weighs a few grams can travel from where I live in Montana and it gets cold in the winter and I’m definitely not going swimming in December—just like you in Maine, Will—to Mexico or Panama across all of these mountain ranges and deserts and stuff? I mean for me that would be a super intense journey and I don’t know if I’d make it. Especially if I couldn’t buy food along the way and stop at hotels and stuff, and here’s this tiny bird making that same journey! It’s just mind blowing to me.  

WILL: Mm-hmm. And the amount of survivability that they need, right? We have to figure out, “How are we going to make such a daunting journey?” And they have all these other things: predators to worry about, the climate, finding food. So yeah, I’m super impressed too.

I think migration in general deserves so much wonder and intrigue just because it’s such a big life moment for these birds. I’m thinking of red knots that travel from, I think it’s South America up to North America and they stop in Cape Cod or something like that, somewhere, maybe New Jersey. And thousands, tens of thousands of these red knots descend and eat horseshoe crab eggs. And that is like a huge part of their migration and survivability because it’s a big refueling pit stop and if they don’t eat there they’ll just die, they can’t make it to where they’re going.  

And in recent years horseshoe crab numbers have been decreasing, eggs less and less, so now the red knots are suffering and dying. So it’s like almost these ancient rituals of birds migrating and they have all of these ingrained techniques and things that we are kind of changing as people, developing the land that they have occupied for millennia. So it’s this kind of mysterious process that birds undertake. I mean it’s just one of the reasons I love birds—they’re so mysterious. The more I study them and research them, the more in awe I am, even of these little tiny birds like warblers.  

SHANE: Yeah, totally. I love that you spoke to ritual there and just how amazing that is, those places and times of year where these birds like the red knots are stopping over and have been doing it since way before I was on this landscape, probably. That’s been something really interesting that I think is hard for me to put into words. And so you, I think, did a really good job of that.

But just as a birder, being out on a landscape through the seasons, and like this place in Montana where I’ve spent so much time on this stream restoration site… Watching the yellow-rumped warblers and the other birds. And just seeing that little snapshot of this massive wave of yellow-rumped warblers that are moving north across the continent in the spring. And both my experience of that is so particular to this particular place I’m watching… But it’s also part of this same thing that connects us all. Because you can see the same thing in Maine—maybe it’s a week or two later or maybe it’s a little bit different. But it’s this same massive wave and ritual of birds returning in the spring. And so to me that’s really special. 

A male yellow-rumped warbler in a thinleaf alder at Sevenmile Creek.
A male yellow-rumped warbler in a thinleaf alder on the Sevenmile Creek restoration site, Helena, MT.

SHANE NARRATION: His crisp gray head blended in with the bark of the thinleaf alder (Alnus incana) as he flitted through the branches, but his brilliant yellow throat and crown glowed like feathered sunshine. I was doing once-weekly bird surveys on the Sevenmile Creek restoration site, a narrow band of water and shrubs surrounded by expansive grassland. And from this mid-April day onwards, yellow-rumped warblers would be my constant companions here throughout the rest of spring migration.  

WILL: Moving can be daunting; traveling can be overwhelming. Through all the stress, there is one thing that never fails to bring me comfort. The sight of a familiar bird. As we’ve just mentioned, yellow-rumped warblers and other migrating birds can be found all over the US. If these birds can learn to survive and thrive in new places, maybe I can too. What are some of the reasons birds migrate? Do any of their reasons for traveling overlap with ours?  

SHANE: Yeah, so in my understanding there are two big reasons that birds migrate. One is food and then two is weather. I mean, who wants to be stuck in Montana when it’s 20 below out in the winter? Sometimes I wonder why I do. Just thinking about the food, back to what we were talking about. About that sweeping spectacle of migration in the spring… If we think about it, in Montana or Maine or across Canada, all of these really northerly latitudes that get cold in the winter, when spring finally arrives and we’re so ready for it, then all of the plants are bursting into life and with them it’s this massive flood of insects and flowers and then fruits and seeds. So it’s like this huge pulse of food that’s available in the summer there.

A yellow-rumped warbler forages among the flowers of a chokecherry in late May.
A yellow-rumped warbler forages among the flowers of a chokecherry in late May.

Whereas in the winter, it’s really tough to survive. And so for a bird like the yellow-rumped warbler, however it is that they’ve managed to figure out this amazing migration and be able to spend the winter in Seattle or in the southern US or in Mexico and then return to these northerly areas where there’s just this massive pulse of caterpillars and spiders and all of these other foods during the summer, and then to be able to evacuate when conditions are really hard again in the winter, both in terms of finding food and in terms of surviving that cold weather…

I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts on this, Will, but to me that sounds a lot like a lot of the reasons that people travel. I mean, maybe also if we can afford it, it’s about new experiences and getting to know people and cultures and other places. But a lot of it too maybe really is about necessity or opportunities in other places. And maybe the conditions where I am in terms of economics, which basically is like food and shelter, right, and basic survival? Maybe I’m not able to really make it very well where I am and there’s this opportunity in another place. So to me that seems pretty similar. 

WILL: When I think about the reasons people move their residence or just travel… I think, yes, a lot of it does have to do with just that experience. There’s a lot of positive or enjoyment aspects of moving around and traveling. But I think especially in these more modern times, recent years, we’ve seen a lot of people moving around because they simply can’t afford to live in the places that they have previously lived in.

I’ve experienced this living in Seattle, downtown Seattle. Watching my rent go up and up and up and my paycheck not going up and up and up has really forced me to reconsider where I live and where I travel, too. I think that has a huge impact on why people travel. And maybe you can kind of relate that to birds in the sense of: people are consistently removing birds’ natural habitat, whether it’s wetlands disappearing, forests being cut down, their homes are disappearing, so they have to reconsider where they’re laying their eggs.  

So just like I may be pushed out of Seattle, birds are also being pushed out of the forest and marshes and all of that. So I think that’s another point that we can relate to. Birds have multiple different living spaces as they migrate. So during the winter they may live in South America; during summer, they may live up in Canada. But yeah, I think a lot of people can’t really afford to have two homes, a summer home and a winter home.

Another thing that’s big for me at least right now is food. So you mentioned birds are traveling, migrating for food. I am not a huge fan of lobster and that’s pretty much all we have to eat in Maine—so I have to travel for food! But yeah, I just drove down to Tennessee. A large part of that trip was for the food. I really miss the sort of local specialties they have down there and had some amazing meals. So I think for people that enjoy different types of food, traveling is really good for them to experience new things.  

Juvenile yellow-rumped warbler, Helena, MT.
Juvenile yellow-rumped warbler, Helena, MT.

SHANE: Yeah, wow. I love all those parallels that you drew there. And I’ve just got to ask if you don’t mind answering this question, what are some of your foods from Tennessee that you really love?  

WILL: Excellent question. So I think the number one, hands down, is my grandmother’s breakfast. She makes some classic Tennessee foods: biscuits and gravy, grits—homemade biscuits, I have to add. I will move heaven and earth to get to that southern breakfast. Barbecue, of course; Tennessee is really great for the sauces. Love their barbecue. But yeah, we had some really good food down there, a lot of it home-cooked. I am the only Valentine representative in the state of Maine. So it was mainly a trip to visit family and to get some connection there.

Yeah, I think just having some home-cooked food is really good. I like to make my own food here so whether it’s curries… I like to make Asian foods, like Indian food, Japanese, stuff like that. Which seems to be a little harder to find here, at least in decent form. But yeah, we’ve got a lot of diners in Maine, especially where I live. I live in the country, which is good for yellow-rumped warblers, but not so good for ethnic foods. Yeah, Tennessee food. Man, now I’m hungry! 

SHANE: Yeah, me too! That sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing that. I love, too, just thinking about the yellow-rumped warblers again, how that sort of ties in. Like you’ve got these foods that are family traditions that are, it sounds like, comfort foods for you and really amazing, and then you also cook like Indian food and Japanese food and stuff.

To me that ties back in with the yellow-rumped warblers: they’re migrating, they’re finding foods in different places and the food scene for yellow-rumped warblers obviously is not quite the same as the food scene for humans, but still, a northern, boreal conifer forest versus, I haven’t been to Mexico yet so I don’t know, I’m not familiar with the habitat diversity there, but it’s like such different places that I’m sure what’s on the dinner table as far as caterpillars or fruits or whatever the yellow-rumped warblers are finding is super different. And so it’s sort of that same kind of flexibility.

A yellow-rumped warbler forages in a spring cottonwood, Phillips County, MT.
A yellow-rumped warbler forages in a spring cottonwood, Phillips County, MT.

I loved what you said, Will, thinking about humans and yellow-rumped warblers and the ways that we’re similar. Like in terms of housing costs going up and it being hard to find places to live. And that’s for sure been true in the last few years where I am in Montana as well, that it’s really hard to find places to rent and it’s gotten pretty expensive. And then how that ties in with birds losing habitat. And what’s that even like for a bird? Is it that same sense of desperation, like I feel when I’m worried about whether I can find a place to live and whether I can afford it or not? So there’s that aspect of shortage and loss and that grief of maybe having a home somewhere and then having to move because it’s gotten too expensive. 

And I mean, really, I’m lucky compared to a lot of people. I have a friend who lived out of her car for several months in Helena, Montana in the winter because she couldn’t find a place to live and finally she was able to. So I think there’s both that that ties us to the yellow-rumped warblers, but then there’s also the adaptability. And that in spite of those challenges, we as human beings tend to be pretty darn resilient and find solutions even when it’s really hard. I think there’s a parallel with these yellow-rumped warblers.

They’re so flexible in their foraging, in where they can live, in living in all of these different places through the seasons, also that in spite of habitat loss and stuff, they’re still around. They’re still like right in our backyards and we can still connect with them. I don’t know, I think that’s just really cool.  

WILL: Agreed. And I think that that’s an especially poignant theme for yellow-rumped warblers because they are, if not the most common warbler in the United States, one of them. Probably top three. Part of the reason they are so populous is because they are so adaptable and resilient. Some birds are fairly fragile and constricted to certain diets or certain locations. Not really the case for yellow-rumped warblers.

One of my favorite facts about them is that they can digest certain berries that other birds can’t. So their little bellies are able to digest the wax on the berries, myrtle berries or whatnot, allowing them to survive in more “winter-ous” climates, northern climates, when others can’t. So that really speaks to the resilience of the yellow-rumped warbler in particular. Again, I can relate to that. Your friend was able to make it through the winter in a car—that’s crazy! But you know, the yellow-rumped warbler has learned how to make those adaptations too. 

Male yellow-rumped warbler.
Male yellow-rumped warbler.

SHANE: Yeah, totally. I think that’s a really, really good point. And, Will, I know that when you started birding it was while you were living in Seattle, right? And with the red-winged blackbirds, which is a really cool story. And now you’re in Maine. I don’t think I’d go swimming in the sound in Seattle right now either—but it’s a bit warmer, I think, than winter in Maine. So I was just wondering: what have you seen in terms of yellow-rumped warblers in those two different places? I’m guessing you’ve seen yellow-rumped warblers in both places. 

WILL: Mm-hmm.

SHANE: How are they different in terms of where you tend to find them, what you see them doing? Do they like to hang out with certain species in one area and different species in the other? Or just anything you’ve noticed along those lines.  

WILL: When I think back to the yellow-rumped warblers that I saw in Washington, most of those were, surprisingly, in the city. Those birds had somehow clung to the bastions of nature within that concrete jungle of Seattle. So I would be on a lunch break from the aquarium where I used to work and I’d see them hopping from tree to tree along the streets and it just amazed me.

Because it’s like, how could any bird that’s not a pigeon survive in downtown Seattle? Where you’ve got concrete on this side and then Puget sound on that side? That surprised me. The other ones that I’d see were in parks, sporadically kind of. Little one-off warblers. So they always felt pretty special to me in Seattle because they seemed pretty solitary. Almost like how you’d see one red-tailed hawk at a time or like one eagle. It’s like, “oh my gosh, there’s one yellow-rumped warbler!” 

Whereas when I got to Maine, I did start seeing flocks of them. So I’m not sure what they were eating or how they were surviving in city. But here since I’m definitely in more of a rural area and I’ve been exploring more parkland or farmland, I am starting to see larger flocks of warblers. And they’re mixed flocks, too. So not just yellow-rumped warblers but all sorts of little birds like chickadees, titmice, sparrows. So they seem to coexist when I’ve experienced them here.

And for some reason I seem to find them closer to water here in Maine. So I do think that they are eating the insects that are swarming around these bodies of water. So whether it’s marshland or ponds, that’s where I have been finding them. I’d say that’s kind of my main experience with the differences there. Which seems kind of ironic because as a person, when I lived in the city, I’m surrounded by a ton of people and I see single birds. And now I live in the country where I feel like I’m alone but I’m seeing groups of birds. So it’s like we kind of traded places. 

Male yellow-rumped warbler singing during spring migration.
Male yellow-rumped warbler singing during spring migration.

SHANE: Wow. That’s really cool to hear. And interestingly enough, with what you were saying about seeing them right near downtown Seattle in all this concrete, kind of low numbers of them, like one or so, one or two and right up against the Sound… I also was out birding yesterday actually and I saw a couple of yellow-rumped warblers just in a neighborhood in Seattle, popping around in the deciduous trees.

But then I also went to Schmitz Park in West Seattle, which is like this amazing patch of old growth forest right in the middle of the city. And I did not see or hear any yellow-rumps there. So I mean that’s a really small sample. Take this with a huge grain of salt. But it definitely matches with what you’re saying of your experience in Seattle: that they’re kind of seeming to take advantage of these neighborhoods and developed areas and that that’s kind of where they’re finding food and stuff here.  

WILL: Yeah. And that, I think, really speaks to the soul again of my podcast, which is: common birds are amazing and they can be found anywhere. So even if you’re in downtown Seattle or wherever, a really urbanized place, maybe you’re going to see these amazing little warblers. More so even, sometimes, than people that live close to these dense forests where you’d assume that you’d see them.  

SHANE: Totally. Yeah. And that’s a theme that I really love too and try to at least allude to with my writing. This idea that, you know, when people think of nature often they think of like Yellowstone National Park or something. But to me that’s been just revolutionary and really fun, to realize that, yes, there’s amazing nature in places like that, but it’s also right outside our doorsteps. It’s also right along the freeway and in the middle of our cities and wherever we live.

And so even if it’s with house sparrows and dandelions, we can develop that connection and realize that there’s all this life that wants to thrive around us. And then we see something like the yellow-rumped warbler that crosses those barriers and it’s in all of these different habitats, from really rural, wild Maine to the middle of Seattle. And I think that’s amazing.  

WILL: When we kind of take a step back and appreciate the wildlife and the little bit of nature that we get to experience every day, we’ll find tremendous value in that life. This winter we got a ton of snow where I live. And one of my neighbors took it upon herself to shovel all of the snow into the bushes that line my house and then her house across the lake. And it basically decimated all of the plant life there that the birds loved to enjoy last summer. So I was pretty upset about that. All of the bushes are gone, destroyed.

But just the other day I was looking into the gray brown mush that is my old plant life, and I saw little bits of green popping up. And it just gave me this hope that life is going to find its way back, after the intense snowfall and the neighbor pummeling these plants. And if plants can figure out how to live through our human shenanigans, so can birds or anything else. Just something I love about nature.

A male yellow-rumped warbler forages in a springtime red-osier dogwood on the Sevenmile Creek restoration site, Helena, MT.
A male yellow-rumped warbler forages in a springtime red-osier dogwood on the Sevenmile Creek restoration site, Helena, MT.

SHANE: That’s so both heartbreaking about the bushes and also beautiful. Both to see those signs of life still. And then I also, I think, the connection. That you have that connection with those bushes, because you’ve seen how the birds use them. And if you weren’t looking at the birds, maybe you wouldn’t even really care that the bushes had been hurt. But even as painful as that is, I think it’s also beautiful, that you have that heartfelt connection with the place. This stream restoration site near Helena where I’ve done a lot of birding over the past six years… It’s really been this spot that has taught me so much about birds and plants and life. And seeing these waves of migration as it’s happening… Because it’s like willows and chokecherries and alders along this stream that’s surrounded by grassland.  

Spring shrubs along the Sevenmile Creek restoration site.
Spring shrubs along the Sevenmile Creek restoration site.

So the birds like the yellow-rumps, that around that area of Montana breed up in the conifers—on this stream, I just see them in the spring and fall. So if I see them there, I know that they’re migrating. And then I get to see these waves week to week. Like, oh, now there are a bunch. Now there aren’t very many. And all of these other birds shifting across the continent with them.

A couple of years after the spring that I tell the story of in our podcast here, that site actually burned in the fall. There was this fire that swept through and it wiped out most of the shrubs. It just burned them to the ground. And so it was really heartbreaking. And then the spring after that, where before we had all of these yellow-rumps and other warblers coming through, it was just a trickle. You know, a few that probably weren’t finding very much to eat there.  

And so that has been really tragic. But at the same time that was like two or three years ago. And it’s been slow, but most of those shrubs have sprouted back from the roots underground. Where the chokecherries were like head-high and would have all these fruits in the fall that would bring in the robins and cedar waxwings—now they’re like as high as my shoulder again.

So it’s still a slow process and it’ll be a few more years before they come back. But just to see that resilience and to see that this is a fire-adapted landscape and these shrubs can handle this. It’s not good in the moment for the birds that are needing them, but they can come back. So it just ties in with both the heartbreak of seeing that loss, but then also there’s a beautiful thing about having that connection and caring and realizing that nature is resilient too.  

Sandbar willows and chokecherries regrowing along Sevenmile Creek, three years post-fire.
Sandbar willows and chokecherries regrowing along Sevenmile Creek, three years post-fire.

WILL: And again, I think I’m kind of inadvertently changing the theme of this episode, to empathy and relatability to the warbler. Because I think of these sorts of landscapes that go through all sorts of trauma like fire and the birds that suffer because of it, they’re still here. Like they come back, they bounce back. So we can, too. You know, people experience all sorts of traumatic events during their life. And just like yellow-rumped warblers, you know, I think we can figure out how to make it work. Yeah, I’m really glad to hear that, that that wildlife preserve is surviving after fire.  

SHANE NARRATION: When this first male yellow-rumped arrived, the shrubs were still waking up from the long winter. The thinleaf alders (Alnus incana) were leafless still, though their long catkins had emerged a week before, sending pollen outwards on the breeze. We watched a small skein of trumpeter swans flying north, higher than the mountains. A few rough-legged hawks passed over, migrating towards an Arctic summer ahead.

A week later, we counted seven yellow-rumped warblers. It was a clear morning after a few days of drizzle. The rough-legged hawks and the other winter birds seemed to have moved on. The leaves of the spiny gooseberry (Ribes setosum) were unfurling, and the chokecherry buds had burst. The raptors were migrating in earnest, riding upwards on thermals. Perhaps there were so many today because the previous days of rain had delayed them. We watched golden eagles, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, and at least eight red-tailed hawks moving past. And at sunrise, two male short-eared owls were flying over the grassland, their flight mothlike, hunting rodents among the grasses and doing territorial wing-clap displays. 

A male short-eared owl flies past at sunrise.
A male short-eared owl flies past at sunrise.

WILL: Another thing that can be really hard for little birds are their predators. Not only do yellow-rumped warblers have to figure out where to go during the winter cold months, what to eat, all of that. They also have to survive against predators such as raptors that eat them. So they have to factor that survivability into their travel plans, so to speak. Because they’ll interact with different predators in the different parts of the world that they’re in. When we relate that back to people, what are some of the challenges that people face while traveling?  

SHANE: That’s a really good question. I should just acknowledge that my experience with travel…. As much as, you know, as a five-year-old kid, going back and forth across the country was not very fun, and there were definitely challenges to it… I also do have a lot of privilege. Like I was never as a kid having to really worry about like, am I going to eat tomorrow? Is there a home waiting for me? Or is a predator going to kill me or kidnap me or something? And I know that there are people who do travel, really facing those survival questions. So I just have to acknowledge that I can only imagine, and admire those people, and I can’t really speak to that from my personal experience. 

But I do know that for me, figuring out how to fit in in a new place… Just basic stuff like figuring out, where do I live? How do I go through my day in this place and this home that’s different? How do I make friends, where do I fit in? How do I find work? All of these sorts of basic questions about getting to know a new place. Those are definitely things that I think probably anyone has to figure out in various ways when they travel.

And I think that’s something that is very much like the warblers. That they’re having to figure out just these basic questions that might be straightforward or might not. Like, how do I find food? What’s my niche here in this new community? Because it’s not just the yellow-rumped warblers that are moving. It’s also the black-capped chickadees that maybe they see in the summer and they don’t see in the winter depending on where they’re going. Or the white-crowned sparrows that are moving alongside them into the boreal forest. 

So it’s not just that they’re moving across the landscape as this solo entity, but they’re also joining these flocks and leaving these flocks. And every place they land, the community is probably going to be different. And like you say, what’s the risk of being eaten by a predator? That’s probably going to change in different places, too. So I think it’s just a lot of figuring out. And I think that’s very much, in a broad sense, similar to us. I’m really curious, what are your thoughts on that, Will?  

A yellow-rumped warbler forages in springtime willows.
A yellow-rumped warbler forages in springtime willows.

WILL: Yeah, I agree with everything that you’ve said. And when I think about why people travel and then why the yellow-rumped warbler travels, I think it’s a risk-reward type of thing. So sometimes the hope for a better food source is worth that danger that lurks just around the corner. People, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes we have to move to a different place for affordability reasons, things like that.

But I think a lot of the challenge is how set in our ways we get. We are creatures of habit most of the time. People like to accumulate things. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out how to move all of this stuff. How do you move light? When I moved across the country, I had to get rid of everything that I owned that didn’t fit into a Mini Cooper. People would tell me like, oh my gosh, you’re so brave for packing up and moving. Or like, this is going to be so hard to live in a different place.  

And I was like, actually the hard part is getting rid of all my stuff, because I love my stuff. I think the kind of, I don’t want to use the word materialism, but the comfort that we find in our things… Can be a challenge when it comes to moving or traveling. So that’s a challenge that I think people create for themselves. Some people are less attached to their things than others, but a lot of us really care about those.

I am a sentimental person. So I like to keep every birthday card that I get, or every photo. I have like 30,000 pictures, you know, just random birds and stuff. But yeah, that’s kind of a self-made challenge. I think as far as outside dangers or challenges, everything that you just said. People have to face potential predators, so to speak, in the wild. Too, some people are more vulnerable than others, definitely worth mentioning. 

But I think no matter where we are, we will always be faced with the unknown, especially when traveling. So sometimes that can be a challenge or a fear factor for people. Just kind of diving into something that’s unfamiliar. So again, like I mentioned, it can be stressful traveling. Something that brings me relief is seeing the familiar birds. I think that is something that can help alleviate that challenge. It’s like when I feel overwhelmed because I don’t know where the grocery store is or how I’m going to get to car repairs or things like that… I can take a deep breath and realize like, hey, there are yellow-rumped warblers here too. You know, I think I could figure it out. Challenges everywhere but also rewards everywhere. You’ve got southern comfort food when you travel to Tennessee and things like that.

A yellow-rumped warbler (Myrtle subspecies) perches in a box-elder during fall migration.
A yellow-rumped warbler (myrtle subspecies) perches in a box-elder during fall migration.

SHANE: Totally. I love what you said there and what you were talking about, about packing stuff or having to let go of stuff. Super relatable. I did that this January. I just put all of my stuff in a storage unit and now I’m sort of doing this mobile writing thing. Which is interesting and, like you say, both challenge and opportunity. It’s very interesting. And I really love what you said about the yellow-rumped warblers.

And it’s similar for me—that like when I’m going to a new place and I’m stressed out, I feel like I don’t maybe belong, I do find that it really helps me just to connect with the landscape. Just to go out and take a walk in a patch of nature and find a yellow-rumped warbler or find a dandelion. Or find a willow that might not be quite the same species of willow as where I used to live… But it’s still a similar story and it’s still there and providing homes for all of this life. There’s something really special to me about that.  

WILL: And I think, too, that’s something that we have to seek. I think back to when I didn’t really even know about birds or recognize that there are yellow-rumped warblers all over the place. I am getting this comfort from seeing the familiar birds, but I wouldn’t really know that they’re there unless I’m actively looking. We’re taking the time to slow down. Smell the roses, for lack of a better term, and just look into these trees and bushes.

So I think in this modern, fast-paced life that we live where it’s like constantly consuming this and that, and media and have 50 screens in your face at one time, it’s really important for us to take a step back. Disconnect, and just look at one thing at a time. Like look at this tree and understand that we are more connected now than we really have ever been.  

SHANE: And something that I really admire about your work, Will, is that you make it really approachable, I think. There are some people who are avid birders or who for whatever combination of circumstances sort of have found that connection with nature in their lives. And then there may be a lot of other people who maybe just haven’t been exposed to that.

And I think that the way that you talk about all of these common species that share our cities with us, share our neighborhoods with us, is really accessible. It really invites other people into this space of just wondering and being curious and finding this connection. And I really think that that’s so beautiful because this really is something that’s for all of us. That like the birds and the plants around us can connect all of us, both to them and to each other. And so I just really appreciate that about the work you do.  

A yellow-rumped warbler peers out from the branches of a chokecherry during spring migration.
A yellow-rumped warbler peers out from the branches of a chokecherry during spring migration.

WILL: Yeah. I kind of think of it as like spreading the gospel. Because I’ve got this good news of birding—and it took me 20-some odd years to even know that that word existed. So now I’m like, I’m going to make sure that as many people as I can know about birding too. If I can share this hobby with a kid or a young adult who can then get into birding and then share it with their friends, I think that’s a win. Anybody can do birding no matter where you are. And I think it’s just so rewarding.

We’ve already talked about the benefits, like in this discussion alone. Birding, I wish I could just shout it from the rooftops at all times. And that’s one of my favorite things about the podcast too. I’ll go to parties or family events, talk to people that I don’t know or I have not had a lot of contact with and inevitably the podcast will come up. And then they’ll listen to it and they’ll be like, wow, this is so fun. Like, I really like this. I’m going to look at pigeons a little differently. Even if I can spread this to like my friends and family that didn’t really know about birding—I think it’s really enriching some people’s lives, like even  strangers’ lives that I don’t know.

And I love your work too, of course, because it’s like you bring a depth to—like my podcast is, I feel like it’s very lighthearted, fun, accessible in a kind of broad way—but you really bring it down to kind of the next level, on a more scientific way of looking at how birds interact with the habitat, their landscape. Talking with ornithologists, walking with professionals, and all of that. When I listen to your show, I think I’m with you on one of your adventures. It’s really cool. So I think both of us are really providing a unique take on this hobby and I think if you really love birds, you’ll love both of these shows.  

SHANE: Thanks Will. I love that too. Just seeing how, I think it’s like binoculars, right? If you look out of binoculars with one eye closed, it’s a very flat perspective. And so I can see that a little bit in our conversation, right? Because we’re kind of coming at yellow-rumped warblers from these two different angles. And then by mixing those together, we’re finding all of these things that I couldn’t come up with on my own. And this is so fun. So I love that.

I also love what you said about sharing this with your family and friends and that reaction of like, wow, I see pigeons in a new way now. And I’ve gotten that reaction. I have some family members who I think for a while were kind of like, Shane’s pretty weird, I don’t know why he is so into plants and birds and all this stuff, I just don’t get it. And then I started doing this blog and they started supporting it and reading it on a regular basis. And since they’ve told me like, now we’re looking at insects differently. Now we notice all of these plants that we didn’t notice before. And they have all these questions for me and stuff. And it’s really fun to see that, to see that we are making those connections and inviting more people in. I really love that.  

WILL: Me too. And that’s why all of my main episodes have a guest. Because I know that everybody has their own perspective on birds and birding and I want share the different perspectives because it adds depth to the world of birds. I even go out of my way to chat with people on my show that aren’t birders. I want to learn from a museum studies specialist on how birds affect their life or their job. Or an indie musician—what’s their connection to birds? So yeah, it’s one of those things where I always say like, if you walk outside you’re birding. But it’s more like, if you’re living and breathing, you’re birding.

A male yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon's subspecies) during spring migration at Sevenmile Creek.
A male yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon’s subspecies) during spring migration at the Sevenmile Creek restoration site.

SHANE NARRATION: By April 27th, the Hood’s phlox (Phlox hoodii) was in full bloom on the hillsides and the chokecherries were beginning to leaf out. This time we found 11 yellow-rumped warblers along the stream. Most of them were still the male Audubon’s warblers that we had been seeing since mid-April—the western subspecies of yellow-rumped—with their bright yellow throats. But we also found one myrtle warbler, the eastern subspecies, with its bright white throat. By now, the white-crowned sparrows were also starting to move through, bound for the boreal forest.

WILL: The yellow-rumped warbler includes four subspecies: the eastern myrtle warbler, Audubon’s warbler, the northwest Mexican black-fronted warbler, and the Guatemalan Goldman’s warbler. Sometimes we settle in different places but keep our roots where we’re from. So think different families spread out, like both of our families. You may look a little different from your cousins on the other coast, your fashion contrast, your voice sound a little different with varying accents. But you’re still family. What are yellow-rumped warblers’ flocking habits? And what’s the value of having connections not only near but far from us as well?  

Male yellow-rumped warbler (Myrtle subspecies) in a springtime willow.
Male yellow-rumped warbler (Myrtle subspecies) in a springtime willow.

SHANE: Yeah, so I really love this question and I’m just thinking of what you were talking about earlier, Will, about predators. And an experience that I’ve had on this restoration site in Montana is… It’s pretty often during spring migration, let’s say like April, probably by April and May, that we’ll have these Accipiters, so these bird-hunting hawks like the sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks that are migrating over. And sometimes along this stream they will stop over and hunt in these shrubs.

So these hawks are like, you know, to a songbird, they’re murderers, right? They hunt mostly songbirds. So these songbirds are super-wary and they normally know when these hawks are around way before I do. Normally the birds tell me. And so the robins will start doing this really high pitched seeee call that I can’t imitate at all—it’s way too high pitched for me. And then the chickadees will sound really agitated, lots of dee dee dee dee dee calls. 

And so whenever I start to hear those things, I drop everything and I’m scanning the sky and looking, where’s the raptor? And sometimes there’ll be like a tiny speck up there and, oh, it’s a sharp-shinned hawk on a thermal or it’s a merlin, one of these little falcons that hunts birds, flying over. Or sometimes I won’t see anything. And so I think if I were a songbird I would’ve used up my nine lives by now, right? I’m so much less aware than these birds are. And so I think that really ties in with this flocking stuff. That it’s not just the yellow-rumped warblers. So during spring migration in Montana, I do see flocks. Sometimes I’ll see like these big flocks of yellow-rumped warblers. But I also see this communication between species. 

A merlin takes off from a willow along Sevenmile Creek.
A merlin takes off from a willow along Sevenmile Creek.

The way that, if one of the robins starts doing that seeee call, then the yellow-rumped warblers dive for cover. And I know as well, like I think you mentioned this earlier, Will, that you will see them with the chickadees and titmice and stuff where you are in Maine. And that’s for sure something that I was reading about in the scientific literature as well. Especially during the fall and into the winter, the yellow-rumped warblers will join these mixed species flocks with chickadees and nuthatches and titmice. Which is just a super cool thing to see. 

Again, they’re kind of trading communication back and forth with these other species. They’re probably also hunting food in somewhat different ways. So they’re kind of working together to cover the area and find food-rich spots maybe and not competing so much with each other. But also just that communication thing. And so I think that speaks to both the flocking and also the connections—wherever they are. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like for the yellow-rumped warblers that are spending the winter in Mexico. But I would suspect that they’re probably also tuning in to this network of other songbirds. I don’t know if they’re foraging with them, but they’re probably, if nothing else, at least paying attention to when those other birds are seeing predators and stuff. And finding sort of where they fit in in this community.  

WILL: So I have to ask, you mentioned the songbirds can kind of tell you when other sorts of birds are present like predators. What is your opinion on “pishing”?  

SHANE: So I’ll just talk briefly about that in case people haven’t heard of that before. So “pishing” is sort of doing like this psHH psHH psHH psHH psHH that will often draw songbirds in and they’ll pop up out of the bushes where they were hiding to investigate. And so there are definitely birders who will use this technique. Like if there’s a sparrow or something that is just hiding in the bushes and they want to see it. I’m a little bit cautious about pishing. There are a lot of times when I’m out birding where I just won’t do pishing at all. So there’s pishing and then another thing some birders will do that is maybe even more controversial is that they’ll do playback, where they’ll play the song of a species on a speaker to try to draw it in.  

I had an experience with a birder in Montana several years ago where I had heard a bird that I was pretty sure about, but it was kind of an unusual bird—we don’t get golden-crowned kinglets in that area very much and I’d heard one. And so they ended up playing actually this predator call of a northern pygmy-owl to see if it would bring the birds in.

And what happened is there were all of these dark-eyed juncos and other songbirds around, they did kind of move in a bit closer. And then this merlin falcon zoomed over. It did not catch a bird, but it almost did. And so to me that was a good lesson of like, okay, I really personally—I mean other people have different opinions—but personally I don’t like to do playback unless it’s a specific situation where there’s a well-thought-out reason for it.  

I have participated in some owl surveys at night before where it’s like trying to gather information on breeding populations of owls for scientific research. Then there is a structured protocol for doing playback in a way that there’s still some risk to birds, but trying to minimize it. So I’m of the same mindset a little bit with pishing, that I tend to avoid doing it. There’s some times, maybe especially like outside of the breeding season, maybe it’s not as risky for the birds because they aren’t under as much stress and where I might consider doing it once in a while in a particular situation. But that’s kind of my inclination on it.  

A yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon's) perches in a Russian-olive during fall migration.
A yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon’s) perches in a Russian-olive during fall migration.

WILL: Yeah, I agree first of all. But the first time I actually learned about that was on an Audubon walk in Seattle of all places. So I met up with this group and the leader of that walk kept doing it. I guess they were looking for a Lincoln’s Sparrow or something like that. So somebody asked like, why do you keep going psHH psHH psHHpsHH? And she explained how that sound imitates like, the warning call or distress call of songbirds.

And it encourages other small birds to come to the defense of the distressed bird. And as they were explaining that, I kind of felt icky. Because to me it was like, if I’m in a theater and I am screaming fire and there’s no fire just because I want to see somebody in the front row get up and run… That seems wrong to me.  

So I won’t do it. I just don’t like it. I think if you are a scientist or a researcher, ornithologist, what not, and you have a reason to use playback or pishing for your research, I think you’re a professional, you know what you’re doing. But just for the sake of my own pleasure or my satisfaction checking something off a list, I don’t think it’s worth distressing the birds.

One of the most exciting things about birding to me is the unpredictable nature of these animals. You never know where you’re going to see a bird or what you’re going to see. So why try to manufacture an experience? If you know something’s there, you can wait for it, or you don’t see it. I don’t personally think using playback or warning calls of little birds is an appropriate way to honor them in their natural habitat. If I keep screaming fire in a theater, eventually the people coming to see the show aren’t going to keep coming to see the show, you know? And then there’s no show for anybody.  

SHANE: Yeah. I’m really glad you brought that up, Will, and I very much agree with you. It made me think of two other things that… Well, they’re related, they’re slightly tangents, so I’ll keep them brief. One is just that I’ve noticed, especially during spring and fall migration, that sometimes if there is one of those birds that really is not choosing to let me see it and is just hiding down in the shrubs or something… Sometimes if I just stop and maybe I sit down and I just hang out there for 15 minutes or so, sometimes that bird comes out. Sometimes it never does. And it’s just like, okay, I respect that, that this bird does not want to let me see it. But often there will be like 15 other birds that will come out of the shrubs.  

A yellow-rumped warbler forages on the ground, a relatively uncommon foraging behavior for this species.
A yellow-rumped warbler forages on the ground, a relatively uncommon foraging behavior for this species.

And because I’m not being such an intrusive presence on the landscape, I’m just being there quietly, they’ll come closer to me. And I can watch them foraging and interacting with each other. And I think those have been some of my most special moments in birding. When I find a place that’s where there are a lot of birds, like near water and shrubs during migration. And then I just stop and sit there for a while and that can be really amazing. So I wanted to mention that.

And then the other thing is just with your analogy about screaming fire in the theater, to me, that’s another thing that’s really cool about birding is that, yes, on one hand we could be sort of maybe not-so-ethical birders and be screaming fire at the theater, right? And then that’s maybe jeopardizing the lives of these birds. And so that’s not really something I want to be doing. But on the other hand, when we’re out and getting to know these birds and stuff, we’re noticing like, oh, this park over here, there’s so many birds using it. And maybe we’re noticing something like, oh, here’s this patch of grassland where meadowlarks and Savannah sparrows nest. 

And then, you know, maybe there’s someone who is letting their dog run off leash. And they’re not being bad-intentioned at all about it, maybe they just don’t know that there are meadowlarks nesting there. And so to me, that’s a natural outcome of birding is that, as we notice what these birds are needing to go about their lives, we can be advocates and we can be making adjustments and maybe being part of a project to plant a new patch of cottonwoods and willows for the birds. Or helping educate people who maybe aren’t thinking about letting their dog run through a really sensitive patch of habitat. And so in that way we can be not just appreciating the birds and benefiting from them, but also giving back. And to me that’s something that’s really special.  

WILL: As you mentioned the off-leash dog, I felt a small fire migrate from the theater to my heart because that’s my hugest pet peeve: off-leash dogs, especially in sensitive wildlife areas. I will straight up tell people that they can’t do that. Something I joke about with my girlfriend every now and then is I want to like set up shop, like become a volunteer with Audubon or something like that and have a little table at the entrance to a park that is no dogs, like a sensitive wildlife area, and hand off fines and stuff to people with their off leash dogs that just, aaAAAAH!

And the beaches too. Oh my gosh. Don’t even get me started on like the endangered piping plovers that we have in Maine. And watching people and their off leash dogs run along their nesting habitats. Anyway, I want to move the conversation from these negatives to more positives.  

SHANE NARRATION: The next week, May 5th, was incredible. It was clear that spring migration was actively happening, right in front of our eyes. From the 11 yellow-rumped warblers of the week before, we now counted 37 along the stream, flycatching and foraging in the shrubs. Most of them were still yellow-throated Audubon’s males, but this week we counted five of the white-throated myrtle warblers. On this day, occasional snow showers descended towards us from the Continental Divide. The spiny gooseberry was beginning to flower. We saw the first western kingbird of the spring and watched the yellow-rumped warblers foraging over the small wetlands of the restoration site, darting out from the alders to catch insects in midair. The riparian shrubs were loaded with migrant songbirds. Besides the 37 yellow-rumps, we counted 16 white-crowned sparrows and 15 Lincoln’s sparrows.

A white-crowned sparrow at Sevenmile Creek in spring migration.
A white-crowned sparrow at Sevenmile Creek in spring migration.

Migration seemed to lull over the next few weeks. We saw just a handful of yellow-rumped warblers. Meanwhile, the chokecherries and thinleaf alders continued to leaf out. Every week, a few more spring migrants and summer breeders trickled in. We saw our first yellow warblers, gray catbirds, lazuli buntings, American redstarts, and clay-colored sparrows of the year.

And then came May 28th. Our last survey had been just four days before, and then we had counted only four yellow-rumped warblers. From the peak of 37 in early May, the yellow-rumps had gradually dwindled. But now, among the new leaves emerging on the willows, and a few foraging least flycatchers, we counted 46 yellow-rumps. It was a flood of migrating warblers—primarily the yellow-rumps. Along with them, we saw a handful of Wilson’s warblers and American redstarts, plus 26 common yellowthroats. Yellow warblers, the only warbler species that commonly stays to nest on this site, were spaced out along the stream, singing their exuberant sweetsweetlittlemoreSWEET song.

Spring birds at Sevenmile Creek. Clockwise from upper left: American redstart, yellow warbler, gray catbird, lazuli bunting, clay-colored sparrow, common yellowthroat.
Spring birds at Sevenmile Creek. Clockwise from upper left: American redstart, yellow warbler, gray catbird, lazuli bunting, clay-colored sparrow, common yellowthroat.

WILL: And I love yellow-rumped warblers. So before we wrap up our chat, I wanted to make sure everybody knows exactly what we are looking at. So just a brief description of them. Yellow-rumped warblers are small songbirds with one iconic feature throughout all of their subspecies and such. And that is their yellow rump—or “butter butt,” as they are known in the birder world. So that’s kind of the defining trait of yellow-rumped warblers. They’ve also got yellow closer to their shoulder area, so their wings where their wings meet their body. And the different subspecies have different color variations. They’re all kind of the same basic brown or gray with lighter streaks across their back. But they’ve also got a little bit of yellow on their head too. So look out for those little warblers. 

A yellow-rumped warbler (Myrtle subspecies) showing the characteristic yellow rump.
A yellow-rumped warbler (Myrtle subspecies) showing the characteristic yellow rump.

I think I was surprised at first when I realized the diversity of those plumages. It’s something that I have actually talked about on my red-tailed hawk discussion, how those birds have various different morphologies and different plumage patterns and such. But yeah, yellow-rumped warblers are identifiable by their yellow rumps, so I like to call them butter butts. Yeah, can’t go wrong with yellow-rumped warblers. And too, like we’ve discussed, they perfectly embody that spirit of freedom and travel that most birds represent.

But I find so much value in their familiarity. So wherever I go, I know I’m probably going to be in the company of a yellow-rumped warbler, which makes me feel a little more at home. Traveling opens up the opportunity to meet new people, to try new foods as we’ve discussed. And to find great new places to establish families. And these are all the benefits that yellow-rumped warblers enjoy too. So Shane, what are some of your favorite things about traveling or yellow-rumped warblers?  

SHANE: Oh my gosh, Will, where to start? I think as far as traveling, it’s really special to me both getting to know new people and people who may see the world in different ways than I do. I mean that’s true of all of us, right? Like we all have different experiences, but I think especially through different languages, growing up in different places, coming from different cultures… It’s really special to get to know the diversity of human experience that way. And at the same time how we’re all human. Another thing that I really appreciate about traveling—and I think both of these tie right in with the yellow-rumped warblers—is getting to know new landscapes. And just connecting with the plants, connecting with the climate, getting to know what’s this new place?

And it seems to me like anytime I do that as well, I also learn so much about the other places I’ve lived just by comparison and realizing like, oh, here in Seattle, we have Douglas-firs and stinging nettles. Well, we also have both of those like in Helena, Montana. But the stinging nettles here are already a foot high and they’re just barely coming up in Helena, Montana because it was snowing two days ago there. So just to see those differences and similarities and to appreciate the diversity of both culture and people and human experience and landscapes is really cool. 

And then yellow-rumped warblers—there are a lot of things that I love about them. I think to me… living in inland northern climates for the last eight or ten years—to me they really speak about spring. When I hear yellow-rumped warblers singing and I see them flitting around in the trees in the willows or the apple trees or whatever in the spring, I know spring is well on its way. 

And they were one of the first birds whose song I learned. I had started birding by ear this one winter in Idaho. And so I knew like the chickadees and nuthatches and juncos—all of these winter birds I knew really well. And so sometime in April, I heard this new song that I didn’t recognize and it was a yellow-rumped warbler in my dad’s apple tree. And that was like one of the first birds that I learned by ear where I realized that I didn’t recognize it.

And then I tracked it down in the field and figured out, oh my gosh, it’s a yellow-rumped warbler and it was really special. So I think just that connection with spring. Also just seeing that migration in action. Like you mentioned, Will, they’re one of the most abundant warblers in North America. So just about anywhere, we’re bound to see them at some time of year as they’re moving through on this massive northward and southward migration and I think that’s really special. 

How about you? What do you like about traveling and yellow-rumped warblers?  

A male yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon's subspecies) forages over a pond.
A male yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon’s subspecies) forages over a pond.

WILL: I think for me, so like how you mentioned yellow-rumped warblers for you were kind of a sign of spring. For me, they’re kind of a reminder of the value of little birds. So when I first started birding, I was all about the big birds. So like I wanted to see eagles and cormorants and these cool birds. But it wasn’t really until I had a coworker at the aquarium who was like the biggest cheerleader for warblers ever that I stopped to really pay attention to them.

I’d tell her about my adventures birding and what I saw and all that and I never really mentioned little things because I didn’t really care about them. And she’s like, well what about the warblers? Did you see any warblers? So I started looking for them and of course yellow-rumps were one of the first ones that I learned how to identify.  

So yeah, they remind me that even the little guys are worth your time and attention. But something that was a bit challenging for me at first was learning how to identify all the warblers because there are so many different versions. And we’ve talked about four subspecies alone in the yellow-rumped warbler. So something that helped me identify them was drawing them. I really like to draw, and art in general. So I thought maybe these two hobbies can mingle to support both.

So I was like, this is my task. I’m going to draw all of the 26 most common warblers in the state of Maine or in the Northeast. So I did, and it took weeks, but eventually I had drawn, labeled, and colored all these warblers. And just that methodical task of looking at all of these different details that the birds have and the male-female differentiations and all of that… Really helped me to learn the warblers and appreciate them.  

So now it’s like, yep, that’s a Wilson’s warbler, that’s a palm warbler, black-and-white, all this… It’s so cool that they’re all around us. And these little tiny birds have such big differences in personalities and all of that. So yeah, that’s something I like about warblers. Traveling, again, everything you’ve said and what we talked about. I appreciate the new experiences that can be had traveling and not just that, but the way that traveling can help me appreciate home and the little quiet moments that I have. So whether it’s seeing green poke up from my dead bushes. Or in the trees across from my window…

A Wilson's warbler perches in a ponderosa pine during fall migration.
A Wilson’s warbler perches in a ponderosa pine during fall migration.

It’s nice to know I can travel down south in Tennessee and see this lush green landscape when it’s still dead and brown here and know spring is on the way, it’s going to get to me. So it, you know, it’s just kind of everything overlaps and connects and I like that. Also of course just meeting new people and experiencing new things and cultures. Yeah, I think that’s something else that I really love about birds. It’s like they are the most well-traveled creatures on the planet, so we can learn from them.  

SHANE: I love what you just said there. And I think for me as well with the yellow-rumped warblers, it’s very similar. Both kind of teach me how the world is so vast and amazing and more than I can ever really comprehend or understand fully and I’m just a little piece of that. And that’s a pretty special thing. But also the warblers in particular teach me how connected it is. Like I think when I was growing up and hopping on an airliner and going from Idaho to North Carolina and back… I would always get a window seat and would look out and try to understand the landscape and stuff. But I think it was kind of really disconnected in a way too.

And so just to see the migration of the yellow-rumped warblers reminds me how connected we all are. Whether I’ve been to these areas in Guatemala and Mexico where some of the yellow-rumped warblers are wintering or not. That people who live there are seeing these same birds that I’m seeing. Even though we don’t know each other yet, that connects us. I think it’s a really special thing.  

WILL: Always have a hint of familiarity. Well, Shane, I really appreciate you letting me join you on your journey in Helena and experiencing this snapshot of your experience with yellow-rumped warblers. So thank you so much for chatting with me.  

SHANE: Thank you so much to you, Will. I really have just loved our conversation and it’s so fun to hear about your experience and passion for these birds where you’ve seen them in Seattle and in Maine. I’m just really happy to have this chance to get to know you a bit more. This has been super fun. Thank you.  

WILL: And maybe just like yellow-rumped warblers experience passing by… One day, maybe we will cross paths as well.  

SHANE: I hope so.

A yellow-rumped warbler perches in an alder at Sevenmile Creek during spring migration.
A yellow-rumped warbler perches in an alder at Sevenmile Creek during spring migration.

Thanks for reading! It was truly a pleasure collaborating with Will Valentine on this special joint podcast production. In addition to the time we each spent preparing for this conversation, Will also did the bulk of the sound editing for this episode. Independent podcasting is a lot of work, and we both rely on listener support to keep going—whether it’s your words of encouragement, sharing our shows with your friends, or a financial contribution. You can find more of Will’s work by searching for Will’s Birdbrain wherever you find your podcasts. Visit patreon.com/willsbirdbrain to support him. And to join the community that supports my work, visit my Donate page. Many thanks.

The Sevenmile Creek restoration site near Helena, Montana, which I mention in this podcast, is a restoration project managed by Prickly Pear Land Trust. For those of you listening from Helena, note that the site is not yet open to the public as the habitat regrows following intensive habitat restoration efforts. Visit pricklypearlt.org for more information.

Until next time, get outside! And while you’re out there, wherever you are, keep your eyes and ears open for yellow-rumped warblers.

4 Replies to “Yellow-rumped Wanderers: a special feature about yellow-rumped warblers”

    I really enjoyed your conversation with Will. It is like living in a little bit of your world. I feel I had an new experience .
    Thank you.

  2. Like Art, I also loved the conversational nature of this. I can imagine the fun AND the complexity in imagining it and diving in together. I like the way it offers getting to know you each to your listeners. One of the tidbits I particularly enjoyed was your story of how yellow rumps are the first bird you learned because their unfamiliar song caught your ear. This gave me engaging listening over a couple of lunchtimes….. NICE collaboration!

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