Gliding atop the quiet waters, our kayaks slid effortlessly on the rising tide. The soaring wind rustled the tree canopy overhead, but down on the water, the air was calm with a hint of rain. Brilliant red cardinal flowers greeted us around every bend. The trees and understory were an impressionist's festival of greens, yellows and browns. With every stroke of the paddle, the hectic demands of my work in Washington, D.C. receded.
Wood ducks startled us when they took off as we approached, their wings flapping madly and their high-pitched alarm calls piercing the solitude.
A few late season turtles plopped indignantly into the water when they heard the soft sluice of the kayaks.
The aggressive chatter of a kingfisher and the thwack of a pileated woodpecker excavating a hole added notes to the symphony.
In a section of the creek where the canopy tightened slightly, the birds were everywhere. We stopped paddling and pulled out the binoculars.
The familiar black-and-white of chickadees was first into view, but they were quickly eclipsed by a flash of yellow. A tiny wood warbler slipped off a branch and snatched an insect on the wing. A sideways flick of the tail flashed a bright yellow, and the bird returned to the streamside oak.
Seconds later, another sally brought another little warbler into view, showing dark on top and light below. But it was the flashes of yellow on the sides and especially on the tail that helped us identify these busy insect-feeders as American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla).
These were either females or first-year males. Adult males have black heads, backs and wings with a white belly and richly toned orange sides, with matching wing and tail patches.
The birds we were watching had gray heads, but otherwise were olive-brown on top. They were pale gray to white below to complement those creamy yellow splashes that caught our eyes. Young males look like females. They keep their female coloring for a little more than a year. Even though they will be sexually mature next spring, and will try to breed, the young males will have a hard time competing with their older, more strikingly colored competition.
American redstarts are classified as wood warblers, that large conglomeration of songbirds that are favorites of birders. There are 116 species of wood warblers around the world, and almost half of them breed in North America.
American redstarts can be found in the summer anywhere from the southern tier of Canada to every state in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest. Their range extends south into Georgia and Louisiana in the East and down the intermountain West into Colorado.
These redstarts would soon be headed to favored winter locations like Belize in Central America or Jamaica in the Caribbean. None of these birds overwinter in the United States.
Even though the country is devoid of redstarts for months at a time, American redstarts are among our most abundant birds during the breeding season. They favor second-growth forests, which they find in vast stretches of the nation.
American redstarts are tiny birds, averaging just 5 inches from bill to tail. The species is thought to be largely monogamous. The diminutive female constructs the nest in the crook of a sapling.
It takes just 10 days for her to incubate her eggs. During this time, her mate brings her food. Her brood consists of three or four chicks, which are born without feathers. Both parents feed the voracious offspring, bringing protein-rich insects to the nest.
It only takes another 10 days for the birds to fledge. They are still pretty helpless, though, and their parents will continue to supplement their feeding for weeks.
With wide, rounded wings that enable them to negotiate tight turns in the forests, redstarts are well-suited as insect catchers. They typically perch on a limb, then jump down and capture an unsuspecting insect flying by. The bird does this by wagging its tail back-and-forth, flashing those colorful tail feathers. Ornithologists speculate that this action distracts the bugs long enough for the bird to complete the lethal snap of its flattened bill.
This is precisely the behavior we witnessed on this early autumn day.
The birds were busy laying on fat for the long migration south, which would start any day. For the redstarts, it was a simple matter of biological necessity.
For me, the wag of the redstart's colorful tail helped to shake off the complex policy analysis and angry crowds of Washington.
We face strenuous challenges ahead, but I will approach mine with a soothed spirit and a heart full of wonder. It's a trip I'll be ready for, thanks in part to the twitchy tail of the redstart.