For the Birds Radio Program: Redstarts

Original Air Date: Sept. 17, 2003 (estimated date)

The record-breaking number of hawks flying through on Monday got all the press, but plenty of redstarts were on the move, too.

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On Monday, a river of hawks flowed over Duluth, and counters at Hawk Ridge tallied the largest number of hawks ever witnessed there—102,329. Even though this flight was high in the sky, it was breathtakingly beautiful and heart-stopping in its sheer magnitude.

But hawks were hardly the only migrants flowing through Duluth that day. Birders watching warblers on Park Point were amazed at the warbler migration there. I’d been out of town for 5 days, and had so much work to catch up with that I was stuck at home, but all day I kept looking out the window or running to my backyard, and all day I kept seeing warblers. I don’t think I looked out the window once without seeing at least on adult male American Redstart, and when I stood in my backyard, for a little while there were at least seven of these glowing sprites fluttering out to catch tiny flying insects all around me. There were also a handful of females and immature males. Redstarts are the only north woods warbler species in which males take two years to develop their adult plumage. Before that, they look quite a bit like females, though in spring they sing and act like adults. In selecting mates, birds always prefer older to younger partners, finding experience and maturity out trump youth, and female redstarts have an easier time than other warblers figuring out which males are at least two years old.

American Redstarts are actually more orangey than red, appearing quite a bit like immature orioles. Once a birder told me the story about when he was teaching his wife to be a birdwatcher. They looked into a backyard tree, and she said with delight and glee that there was a Baltimore Oriole in the center. He saw an adult male redstart, and tried to show her how although both species have black heads, orioles actually have a bit more orange, and are larger, not the dainty little creatures that redstarts are. But she insisted that her bird looked pretty large to her. He became a bit impatient as the redstart flitted out, flaring its tail in a distinctive way, and told her that she really needed to key in on size more. He was speaking in a condescending tone, but she insisted that the bird sure looked like an oriole to her, and if birdwatching was so subtle and hard that she didn’t even know an oriole when she saw it, maybe she should give it up. But at that moment, the redstart flitted up a few feet into another branch, and perched right next to the oriole that his wife was watching.

American Redstarts are well named if you take the word America to be a bit more inclusive than people in the United States usually do. They breed in Canada as well as two thirds of the United States, and they winter from Mexico to South America, where delighted people call them las candelitas, or little torches. The ones gathering in my backyard and probably in yours right now are bulking up for their journey. These quarter-to-a-third-of-an ounce creatures make the long journey on their own power, as hardy as they are lovely. The ones in my backyard this week are heading out, feeding during the day and making serious long-distance journeys at night, navigating by starlight. It’s hard to bid farewell to such lovely little creatures, knowing the dangers they face, the tragedy facing the ones who are returning to degraded tropical forests. But despite the hardships they face, many of these very redstarts will return to us come spring, their flaming colors filling one another with ardor and filling our hearts with delight.