A brilliant flash of yellow rises from the hedgerow and daintily perches on an exposed branch just 20 feet away. The air is crystal clear. This combination of proximity and light is a birder's dream for identifying a new species. I've never seen this bird before, but the yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens) is unmistakable. I can hardly wait to share the news with my birding companion.
The first sight of a wood warbler usually leaves me at least momentarily confused if not totally stumped. There are dozens of species in this group. Most are relatively small-about 5 inches in length-and exhibit patches of yellow in a kaleidoscope of options: face, breast, rump, vent, throat, or wings. Many inhabit dense foliage and are constantly moving, presenting real identification challenges in the field.
This chat presents no such problem. At 7.5 inches, it is by far the largest wood warbler. The yellow of the thick throat and plump breast glows in the mountain sunshine. The olive back and wings, white belly and white eye-stripe barely register in comparison with that commanding blaze of yellow.
Adult males and females share the same striking color patterns through much of the year. The only subtle difference occurs in the breeding season when the female shows a small gray patch in front of her eyes. The spot is black in males year-round. Juveniles have a dusky spotting on their throat and breast instead of their namesake color. Unlike most wood warblers, the chat does not have wing bars. Its bill is short, thick and black.
I'm relishing my good fortune when the chat springs into action.
The bird puts on an aerial display over a small meadow. With its head up and glorious throat and chest thrust forward, the chat is beating its wings in a spasmodic fashion. A slight pause between beats is followed by a powerful single stroke that propels the bird ahead in spite of its decidedly non-aerodynamic flight profile.
Singing a complex series of notes, the chat recalls the song of the gray catbird, with its series of jumbled sounds. Chats are skilled mimics, offering gurgles, squawks, caws and sweet notes, but with greater strength and clarity than the catbird. The French name for the chat is "Paruline polyglotte" (multilingual wood warbler). Standing here listening to the cascade of sounds coming from this dramatic bird, I understand why.
The yellow-breasted chat, after putting on such a stunning flight display is still whistling and chucking away, but is now lost in the dense riparian brush. The temperature hovers near 95 degrees. There is none of the familiar pearl gray sky that accompanies this kind of heat back in Washington, D.C., though. I'm standing at the foot of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Park in southwestern New Mexico. The high desert air is thin and the light is an artist's dream, as Georgia O'Keeffe would attest.
Chats are not limited to the rarefied skies of the desert Southwest. They winter in Central America, but their summer range extends across much of the United States. They are actually more plentiful in the eastern states, including those of the Chesapeake watershed. Chats breed from New York to Iowa and south to the Gulf Coast. The breeding populations in the West are scattered from Montana to the northern states of Mexico and appear to be growing modestly. That's the opposite of the trend back home, where numbers are falling.
Despite its widespread range and multiple compelling attributes, the bird is not often seen. The chat is a shy bird that doesn't display its gifts readily.
Chats eat insects and fruits, and some variation in color has been observed as a result of changes in diet. It gathers most of its food in the dense underbrush that it favors, foraging insects from the plants or on the ground.
My first chat is quiet now. This handsome species is known as the "alleged chat" among a small circle of my friends. One, an experienced birder, reported years ago that he had spotted a yellow-breasted chat in his backyard in suburban Boston. His skeptical brother scoffed at the identification, forever appending "alleged" to the front of the bird's name.
I make a mental note of my location and head off to get my birding companion. I need to do more than just share the news of my good fortune. This is no ivory-billed woodpecker and the chat was unmistakable, but I'm clearly going to need a witness before I recount this sighting. An "alleged chat" requires corroboration.