Ohio's Common Yellow-throated Birds
April 2014

Here is a conversation that probably takes place daily in some form every spring in Ohio amongst birders :

Birder 1 : "There's a Yellow-throated."

Birder 2 :  "Did you say yellowthroat or yellow throaTED ?"

Birder 1 : "YELLOW-THROATED !"

Birder 3 :  "No, it's just a Red-eyed."

In the Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow-throated Warbler, and another warbler named the Common Yellowthroat we have three of our most common birds. It's just too much and gets confusing and annoying for beginners and more advanced birders alike. I personally have always detested the the name "Yellow-throated Warbler" especially and have come to resent it the most of the three. There is a good alternate name already ready to go, the "Sycamore Warbler".  The name Sycamore Warbler is an old term that was once used for the albilora (white-lored) subspecies of the Yellow-throated Warbler, which is the subspecies that we have here in Ohio although some do show some yellow on the lores with close scrutiny. Wouldn't everything be a lot simpler and easier just to call them all Sycamore Warblers?  In my own personal notes I always do, but when I have to be official or when I send in reports to the ohio-birds mail list and have to be understood by everyone I do get annoyed having to always type out in entirety "Yellow-throated Warbler".  "Yellow-throated" alone could pertain to either a vireo or a warbler. In some reports from novice birders, bless their hearts, we often see confusing mentions of things like Yellowthroat Warblers or Common Yellow-throateds that could be anything.

Sycamore Warbler, Zaleski State Forest, April 20, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/500th sec., ISO 500

The Yellow-throated Warbler, or Sycamore Warbler as I will call it from here on, is one of the first warblers to return to Ohio's forests each spring. Only the Pine Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrush arrive earlier. In a warm spring a few Sycamore Warblers might already be on territory in the extreme south at Shawnee State Forest by the end of March, but most arrive during the first 10 days of April throughout the southeastern unglaciated area of Ohio and can be present along the Scioto River in Columbus by the end of the second week of April. Their characteristic habitat in Ohio is most typically along streams with sycamore trees. These habitats are wooded to some degree. In Ohio's state forests they're present along small streams lined with sycamores in the oak hickory forests but they are equally numerous along large rivers with floodplains dominated by cottonwoods with sycamores. In Ohio forests some are also present in upland areas with white pines and no sycamores at all. They have longer bills than most warblers enabling them to probe into pine needles and flaky sycamore bark before most leaves have begun to bud each spring. Their song is an easily recognized series or rhythmical downward slurs, each lower in pitch than the previous one often with a slight upward chirp or chip note at the end. The Louisiana Waterthrush, which often uses the same habitats in Ohio forests along streams, starts its song also with downward descending slurs, but their sound is far more sonorous, less rhythmical, and ends in a wild cackle of chips and chirps. Experienced birders can immediately tell by the 2nd note which is which. The historical range of the Sycamore Warbler in Ohio has undergone changes within historical times. In the early 1800's they were widely found throughout the state and their range contracted during that century to only the extreme southern counties. Their range began to expand again in the middle of the 20th century, something I have witnessed first hand. When I began birding in the almost 25 years ago they were common birds throughout the unglaciated areas of Ohio in all the state forests, but only widely scattered in small numbers elsewhere. Years passed before I ever suspected any nesting in my backyard. Nowadays they're common here along the Scioto River in Columbus. I have a pair nesting right out my back door and can hear them any morning I care to each spring. Within a mile of here there are usually about 4 more pairs that nest nearby. If you take a walk down a bike path along the Scioto River in Columbus you'll be certain to find Sycamore Warblers at regular intervals. The same is true along some smaller streams in glaciated Ohio. When doing my breeding bird atlas work along the Deer Creek, they were found to be equally as common at regular intervals when sufficient woodland vegetation was present. The males sing regularly throughout the day in warm weather when they arrive on territory, but once the females arrive and they're paired up they sing less often and rarely into the afternoon. That makes them very difficult to detect, as they are a true bird of the treetops. I consider them the most difficult common Ohio warbler to photograph since they rarely venture from the tops of the tallest trees and are not easily coaxed down. Despite all the years I have been photographing birds in Ohio forests I really have little to show for it when Sycamore Warblers are concerned. In July when the young birds fledge the males increase their singing again throughout the day and they sometimes wander away from the immediate riverbed. During July I have seen them around the neighborhood in uncharacteristic places and once had one singing on my chimney. When I first began birding finding a Sycamore Warbler in the fall was nearly unheard of, but as their local population increased and their range has expanded northward I now see them regularly through the first week of October in Columbus like many other migrant warblers.

I have already mentioned that I hate the name "Yellow-throated Warbler" and why it is confusing. It is also a very generic name that could have just as easily been given to many other species. Of the North American warblers alone, yellow throats can be found in all plumages and ages of Northern and Tropical Parulas, Blue-winged, Magnolia, Yellow, Kirtland's, Prairie, Palm, Audubon's, Grace's, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Wilson's, and Canada Warblers, and,  of course, the Common Yellowthroat. Let's not forget that the Yellow-breasted Chat is still technically listed with the warblers too. Yellow-throats are also found in some plumages of many others such as male Pine and Nashville Warblers, and female Blackburnian Warblers. If you throw in all the warblers from south of the border with yellow throats you end up with a potentially very long list of species that could have just as easily been named "Yellow-throated Warbler". Be sure to capitalize Yellow-throated Warbler when you are writing about that specific species, because If you say you saw a yellow-throated warbler you could also mean that you just saw a warbler with a yellow throat, possibly a Wilson's or a Kentucky. It is the American Ornithological Union and not me that names birds, but if I was granted 5 minutes to change one thing it would be the name of this bird. Back in my early birding days I did have a chance to meet a member of the AOU and immediately took the chance to mention how I felt that it would be best if "Yellow-throated Warbler" was renamed "Sycamore Warbler".  I was quickly dismissed with a "who do you think you are you dumb novice" attitude and was told that not all Yellow-throated Warblers nest in sycamore trees throughout their range. Some 20 years later I still find myself arguing with that logic. Palm Warblers and Magnolia Warblers never nest in those trees. Cape May, Connecticut, and Tennessee Warblers never nest in those places. Prairie Warblers don't nest in prairies. Not all Kentucky Warblers nest in Kentucky and not all Canada Warblers nest in Canada, so should either or both of them be renamed a more generic "North American Warbler"? The reasons for not officially renaming the Yellow-throated Warbler the Sycamore Warbler aren't very compelling to me, and of Ohio's three common yellow-throateds, this is the one that would eliminate the most confusion.

Yellow-throated Vireo, Deer Creek Wildlife Area, April 29, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/640th sec., ISO 500

Yellow-throated Vireos are a widely distributed species throughout Ohio in a variety of woodlands. They can be considered common or at least fairly common everywhere I do my birding in southern and central Ohio, but are outnumbered by Red-eyed Vireos everywhere in the breeding season. In Ohio their characteristic repetitive vireo phrases have a burry rough quality that stand out from the resonant whistling of the Blue-headeds and the mundane Red-eyeds. Some western species such as Cassin's and Plumbeous Vireos have a similar burr to the voice, but Yellow-throateds always seem to throw in a downward inflected two-note phrase that sounds like "three-eight". They also have a snickering like call that is frequently the only sign of their presence since they are not nearly as persistent with their singing as Red-eyeds are. What is characteristic habitat for them? I really don't know for sure besides the presence of some large trees. Yellow-throated Vireos arrive typically in unglaciated Ohio by the end of the second week of April when the trees they inhabit are barely beginning to bud if at all. In the Shawnee State Forest there is a small breeding population of Blue-headed Vireos that arrive earlier, but otherwise Yellow-throateds are the first treetop vireo to arrive in Ohio each spring. White-eyed Vireos arrive in the thickets along with them and some years the very first Red-eyeds can arrive within a day or two later. So far 2014 has been unusual in that the tall trees have been late to leaf out and the time between the arrival of the Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos was unusually long. For most of the second half of April this year Yellow-throated Vireos were widespread and common and no Red-eyeds could be found. Consequently I have been spending more time observing Yellow-throated Vireos than usual. (In that previous sentence I must say that I hated typing out the full Yellow-throated Vireo. A simple "Yellow-throated" wouldn't do since I could have possibly been talking about the Yellow-throated Warbler.) Last week on the Utah Ridge of the Wayne National Forest in Athens County I was driving along and finding Yellow-throated Vireos every quarter of a mile or so. That's not a particularly high density, but they were at encountered at regular intervals in the still bare tall trees in a variety of woodlands. In the mature undisturbed tracts there was one. Down the road in a clear cut from about 5 years ago where scattered tall trees were left standing in an area dominated by dense saplings there was another one. Further down the road the understory had a recent burn and the ground was bare but all the mature trees were left in tact and another Yellow-throated Vireo was singing. They were found on the ridges and they were found along the West Bailey Creek in the valley below. So exactly what is their habitat? Besides the large forests they can also be found in many places in glaciated Ohio where they accompanied by few warblers. When doing breeding bird survey work at the Deer Creek I found them in all my atlas blocks. They were found along the Deer Creek in the riparian corridor, and every small woodlot seemed to have a nesting pair. They also can be found in reclamation grasslands where only a few widely scattered clumps of tall trees remain at places such as the Woodbury and Tri-Valley Wildlife Areas. A few years ago in Florida I found them to be quite common in the open pine woods favored by Bachman's Sparrows where oaks were present but seemed few and far between. One type of woodland that I don't tend to find them is in floodplain woods where only cottonwoods and sycamores are present. Warbling Vireos can be numerous in such places and Red-eyeds can also occur, but Yellow-throateds seem to require large oaks or similar species in any density. With that said, they are remarkably adaptable to a wide range of habitats and show up on territory before the trees leaf out. So the question I have is why are they outnumbered by a significant margin by Red-eyed Vireos everywhere they occur?

Yellow-throated Vireo, Scioto Trail State Forest, April 23, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/1000th sec., ISO 500

To be honest I have really never had too many issues with the name Yellow-throated Vireo as much as with the similarly named warbler. Yellow-throated Vireo might actually be a better name for the Philadelphia Vireo, which I might add doesn't nest in Philadelphia or anywhere else in Pennsylvania. One of the key diagnostic markings between the Warbling and Philadelphia Vireos is to look at their throats, especially with fall birds when Warbling Vireos may have a lot of yellow on them. With Yellow-throated Vireos it's not only their throats that are yellow, so may be "Yellow-headed Vireo" would be better. It's not often that birders have to deal with Yellow-headed Blackbirds and this bird together and any sort of confusion is unlikely. But we now have the Blue-headed Vireo which really are more grayish. Maybe one vireo named after the supposed color of their head is enough. I still like the name Solitary Vireo for them. When the Solitary Vireo complex was split into separate species consisting of the Blue-headed, Plumbeous, and Cassin's Vireos, it was the Blue-headed that got to keep the Latin name Vireo solitarius. Why couldn't it have kept the English name too?  The folks out west might have resented having to change the name of their Solitary Vireo while Easterners didn't is the only explanation I can come up with. The Yellow-throated Vireo could be named after the burry quality its voice, but something like "Rough-voiced Vireo" but again that might not go over well with the folks who only hear Plumbeous or Cassin's Vireos. In reality just changing the name of Yellow-throated Warbler to Sycamore Warbler will alleviate most of the problems and the Yellow-throated Vireo could just be left alone as is and I would be satisfied.

Common Yellowthroat, Shawnee State Forest, April 17, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/400th sec., ISO 500

The third bird here is one of the most common and widespread species in North America including Ohio. That is the Common Yellowthroat, which, of course, is a warbler. Their distinctive song is often one of the first ones learned by beginning birders through their range. In Ohio they occur wherever there is shrubby cover for them in open areas both wet and dry. They are often associated with marshes, but occur also in abandoned fields, streamside thickets, hedgerows, and upland forest clear cuts to name a few habitats. Along streams and forest edges is where they are likely to be found or at least heard along side Yellow-throated Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos. Their arrival and movement in Ohio takes place over a wide interval between mid-April and early May. The above bird was photographed on April 17th and I believe was the first one I saw this year. That morning was unusually cold for the date with the morning temperature in the 20's. That brought the Yellow-throated Vireos and Yellow-throated Warblers down from the treetops to feed in the the same streamside thicket with the bird above. While hearing all three at once isn't unusual, actually seeing them all together is. With such a widespread and common species such as the Common Yellowthroat I hold out little hope that its name would ever be changed. I must say that to me the most distinctive feature of the males isn't their throat, but the black mask on their head. "Masked Warbler" or something like that I do think would be a better name, but I'll leave it alone.

To summarize, we Ohio birders and those of us in other states where all three of these birds are common are put in a kind of ridiculous situation with three of them often occurring together and named for their yellow throats. Think of the chaos that you would have on something like a pelagic trip if three of the most regularly encountered birds were named "White-throated Petrel", White-throated Shearwater" and a third bird, also a shearwater, was named "Common Whitethroat". While I do have tremendous respect for the work that the AOU does, I feel that they're really dropping the ball on this one. In this day of electronic communication, birders are quick to adapt to every new name that comes out with uniformity and conformity. How often do you even hear "Solitary Vireo" or "Rufous-sided Towhee" anymore? Quaint older colloquial names such as "Sycamore Warbler" are now long forgotten, which can be unfortunate for those of us like me who are sick and tired of having to write out and say in full the names of those three species all the time. Officially naming the Yellow-throated Warbler the Sycamore Warbler would make life just a little bit easier. It would be readily accepted I'm sure.

Kentucky Warbler, a yellow-throated warbler,  Wayne National Forest, May 4, 2014
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/125th sec., ISO 640

Here are some other photos of those birds from the archives :

Sycamore Warbler, Scioto Trail State Forest, April 17, 2008
Canon EOS 1D MarkIII, Canon 600mm f4 L IS lens + 2x
f10, 1/500th sec., ISO 400

Notice in the bird above that there is some yellow on the lores despite being an albilora Yellow-throated Warbler. Although it doesn't seem very long ago to me now, I had to go back six years to 2008 to find a photo of this species sitting at eye level in a relaxed manner in a nice setting with good light. This was photograph in the same area where the Yellow-throated Vireo photo above from Scioto Trail was taken this year and Common Yellowthroats were in the thickets below it.

Common Yellowthroat, Deer Creek Wildlife Area, May 19, 2012
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/800th sec., ISO 400

Common Yellowthroat, Deer Creek Wildlife Area, May 19, 2012
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/800th sec., ISO 400

The above bird is singing in a cattail marsh in the Deer Creek wetlands. While all three species can be found in close proximity along the Deer Creek itself, you will never find the Yellow-throated Vireo and Sycamore Warbler venturing far enough away from the tallest treetops to join the Common Yellowthroat in an open marsh.

Yellow-throated Vireo, Cooper's Hollow Wildlife Area, April 29, 2012
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/160th sec., ISO 640

Although this year is an exception with spring arriving late, in most years by the end of April the interiors of most of Ohio's forests can become unproductive for photography with little light coming in through the dense leaves. Cooper's Hollow in Jackson County then becomes one of my favorite locations in southern Ohio to visit with its mix of woodlots, streamside thickets, and successional growth.  All three of these common yellow-throated birds do quite well there.