Dear Wood Folk,
Last year most of my May mornings started with a whistling “pleased, pleased, pleased to MEECHYA” from a chestnut-sided warbler I uncreatively called Chessy. Finding a mate seemed to take a while, but eventually he found a partner and had one fledgling. Well, it probably only appeared to take a while because these little dudes continue to sing and sing to defend their nesting territory.
And here is Cheesy’s family:
Logging resulted in a warbler population boom for most species (and others types of birds like indigo buntings). With the decimation of our ancient forests we ended up with many open, sparsely treed spaces. The gradual process of shrubs and trees moving back in makes for prime real-estate for certain birds.
As our woods grow back in chestnut-sideds will end up raising their families in logged areas, places cleared by forest fire, or where the wind has taken down a swath of trees – wherever the forest has been taken or held back.
Chestnut-sideds are one of around a couple dozen warblers that frequent Haliburton County, Ontario. At the end of this diary entry are warbler checklists you can print for your own local birding adventure. In the Spring, just follow the birdsong. It’s especially easy to find the singers before the trees completely leaf out. You’re sure to spot warblers then!
Chestnut-Sided Warbler Plant Allies
Chessies like to stick around deciduous woods and forest edges, and open woodlands with lots of thick cover. Chessy didn’t roam far. He hopped around from his favorite dead “singing” tree to the shrubby maples saplings and brambles nearby. It was almost a given that I’d see him out there.
Chessy’s partner likely built their nest fairy low to the ground. I never noticed where, so they must have picked a spot a ways into the woods and for certain out of sight. It was likely set in a crotch of twigs in a thicket. Alder or maple are good choices around here. She would have made a small cup of loosely woven bark, perhaps cedar, with grasses and other plant matter. And lined with fine grasses and sedges, hair, and rootlets. Chestnut-sided warblers not only eat tons of spiders, but they bind their nests with spider silk.
Typical of warblers, chestnut-sided warblers eat mostly insects. In the fall, prior to migrating south, you’ll often find them mixing with chickadees and other warblers, scouring tree after tree loading up on bugs. (You can follow the more vocal chickadees that time of year to find warblers!) Seeds and fruit make up only a small fraction of their diet and tend to only be eaten on their winter grounds, far far south of here. Even in the tropics insects make up 90% of their diet. On rare occasion they might eat a stone fruit, you may catch them on your apple, cherry, pear or plum actually nibbling a fruit.
How to Attract Chestnut-Sided Warblers (and Friends!)
Native plants attract native insects, and besides having an open woodland, having an insect friendly property is a main attractant for warblers. Having a variety of tall native grasses, shorter grasses and sedges, wildflowers, shrubs, trees and even specific “host plants” (as in milkweeds for monarchs), will work toward making your space a buzzing haven. Along with avoiding insecticides. Our insect populations have been declining, so creating insect habitat is a pretty big deal.
Plant biodiversity will go a long way to attract warblers too. Around here, an understory of shrubs like leatherwood, brambles, various sapling, etc. in your sugar maple woods is a great habitat for warblers. Even shrub piles = scrub = another favorite spot of some warblers, and sparrows too. Dark eyed juncos have been hanging around the scrub pile at the 100 Acre Woods recently. Last year a large family of common yellowthroats (another type of warbler) lived in it.
Some warblers eat serviceberries, a bird fav. Some may nibble blackberries, dogwoods, honeysuckles, juniper, pokeweed, poison ivy, staghorn sumac, Virginia creeper or wild grapes. Warbler nesting preferences include beech, eastern hemlock, eastern white pine, elderberry, maple, oak and willows. I’ve spotted nests in lower shrubs like leatherwood and alder too.
You may on very rare occasion have a warbler snatch mealworms from a feeder or nibble at some suet. But a busy feeder will be a deterrent as well.
A water feature may attract warblers; especially with running water, and even better with perching spots around it.
Discouraging feral cats is a smart idea if you are trying to attract warblers and other birds. Just one kitty can be a death sentence to hundreds of birds any given year.
The warblers are starting to arrive around Haliburton as I post this. There are 24 different kinds of warblers that have been spotted in Haliburton county and recorded on iNaturalist. In 2019 I spotted 17 or 18 of the two dozen. A favorite picture of each is uploaded to Instagram and Facebook:
I’ve made a checklist for the warblers that you have the best chance of seeing here: right click and “save as” the images below. I’ve excluded warblers with less than 3 local sightings on iNat: Tennessee, Blackpoll, Wilson’s and Orange-crowned; however, I left space for them and more possibilities. They are ordered by occurrence. Good luck!
There are 54 species of warbler in North America. If you’re not around Haliburton, Ontario, you can make a similar list for your area by searching iNaturalist for warblers and specifying your country down to county or equivalent. There’s also this warbler reference guide from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Happy birding!