Our car rumbled slowly over the boardwalk bridge. As we entered the woods, the boards gave way to an earthen road surface. The hybrid’s electric engine edged us silently into the sun-dappled forest, which was alive with bird songs and calls.
Almost immediately, we spied an energetic, tiny warbler. It was flitting about, flashing its tail and drooping its wings.
The miniature mayhem was effective. The warbler nabbed an insect that was seemingly startled by the bird’s antics. Wasting no time, the bird raced to another low bush and repeated its behavior.
American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) are active foragers. Males are mostly coal-black, with bright orange-red patches on their sides, wings and outer tail feathers. The flashes of orange are readily seen when the bird spreads its tail and drops its wings. Redstarts wag their tails to highlight their dual-toned extremities. Underneath, they are pale white.
Redstart females substitute a lovely yellow for the male’s electrifying orange. The females are just as active, flashing their colorful patches, while wagging their tails and flitting about in the low understory. The female has a gray head and a dark olive-tan back. The wings and tail are dusky gray. The underside is white except for a few gray streaks on the breast.
The bird we were watching swooped across the road, which was crowded now by summer’s flourishing bushes and saplings. The forest’s big trees were in full leaf, filtering shafts of sunlight that painted the understory in an endless palette of greens and browns with streaks of amber and silver.
Startled insects were caught in midflight as the redstart sallied from its perch on a low branch. The bird has a flattened bill like a flycatcher. He was putting it to effective use.
We were on the self-guided Critical Area Driving Tour, having passed from the Jug Bay Natural Area into the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary. The road is open for a few hours on Sundays, giving hobbled birders like me a chance to enjoy these riparian gems along the Patuxent River.
Redstarts are neotropical migrants. They winter from southern Florida down as far as Peru. Every spring, the birds head north and set up breeding territories in woodlands throughout the Eastern United States and Canada.
They can also be found in the West, from Colorado north to Alaska, and Canadian provinces and territories.
From June to September redstarts can be found in all of the Chesapeake watershed states and the District of Columbia.
Like other wood warblers, redstarts are small. They measure 5 inches from bill to tail, and weigh a mere quarter of an ounce. Their annual migrations over thousands of miles are a miracle of stamina and navigation.
Redstarts prefer second growth forests, which are abundant in the modern landscape. They are especially fond of deciduous forests.
Males woo females with aggressive territorial behavior, singing their complex, high-pitched songs from the treetops. Redstarts build a small cup nest at the base of a tree or in the fork of a sapling.
They produce a single brood annually, although males may take a second mate after the first female is safely hatching her eggs.
Because American redstarts breed in such diverse and expansive territories, they are among the most numerous warblers in all of North America.
In late summer, redstarts shift their diets to include berries. In the Chesapeake region, native bushes such as barberry and serviceberry provide concentrated feeding stations. The birds will pack away the food in preparation for the arduous flight back to their tropical homelands.
An indigo bunting popped into view, diverting our attention from the busy redstart. Also a male, the blue bunting began foraging on the ground, looking for insects and spiders. His stubby conical bill was well-suited to the bunting’s diet, which includes hard seeds as well as insects.
The gorgeous blues of the indigo bunting made it every bit as handsome as the redstart.
My binoculars had quickly refocused on the newcomer. As soon as I did so, a sheepish grin crossed my face: How fickle of me to throw over the redstart for the newest pretty bird, I thought!
For six months out of the year, neither species would be within a thousand miles of here, but for this day, they were just a few yards away.
We settled in to watch the two birds exploit the same feeding territory with two different, but equally effective, methods. The redstart was all action with twitching tail, flashing wings and sallying flights.
The bunting was busy, too, but in a much more controlled fashion, working its way through the forest floor with a keen eye and darting bill.
Was I being fickle? Perhaps. There would be time later to ponder the question. This was midsummer, and the gifts of nature were so extravagant that it was best to simply give oneself over to its sensuous delights.