Home & Garden Columns

Wild Neighbors:Notes from a Recovering Birder: The Redstart

By Joe Eaton
Monday September 27, 2010 - 06:47:00 PM
Female (top) and male American redstarts
Louis Agassiz Fuertes
Female (top) and male American redstarts

I haven’t been to outer Point Reyes this fall, and I doubt that I’ll make it before the migration ends. Chasing vagrant birds at the Point has lost much of its appeal for me. High winds and blinding fog are frequent out there. Some days you see almost nothing. Other times you show up at the lighthouse trees or the Drake Memorial just after the Connecticut warbler, or whatever the rarity du jour was, has left, forever. There will be gloating; the Point Reyes birding scene is highly competitive. Then there are the reeking bubbling farm ponds, the dairy farmers’ hostile dogs, the pieces of rusted agricultural equipment lurking under the ivy. Most of the time it just ain’t worth it. 

But if a semi-rare bird happens to touch down in my back yard, I’ll sure as hell look at it.  

I was watering the plants last Saturday morning, aware of the goldfinch action in the trees above the thistle feeder but not really focusing on them. One bird, low in a plum tree by the fence, caught my eye. Funny-looking goldfinch, I thought. A bit more yellow than a goldfinch ought to be this time of year, and there’s something about the bill shape.. 

Then it dropped down to the edge of the herb bed, and fanned its tail. Now it had my full attention. Gray head, greenish black, big yellow patches on the upper surface of the tail. White belly with a touch of yellow on the sides. Small black bill. This thing was an American redstart—maybe the third or fourth of its species I’ve seen in California, and the first away from the outer coast. In my yard. 

I froze. The redstart—a female or juvenile by its plumage; adult males are black and orange—worked its way from bed to bed and pot to pot, searching for edible insects. It continued to flick its tail, flashing the yellow patches. At one point it was only a couple of feet away. Then it flew up into the trees near the house; I tried to track it but lost it in the leaves almost immediately. I never saw it again. 

I was, of course, out there without a camera, even a cell phone (assuming I had ever figured out how to take pictures with the phone, which I had not.) There wasn’t even time to get Ron out to see it. But I know redstarts from back East; there was nothing else it could have been. The bird wasn’t a super-rarity; about 185 migrants are recorded in coastal California every fall. Good enough for me, though. 

Those of us who think of redstarts at all tend to think of them as eastern birds. In fact, their breeding range extends west through the boreal forest to southern Alaska and interior British Columbia. When those western redstarts migrate, though, most of them head southeast. Some wind up wintering along the Gulf Coast and in peninsular Florida; the majority go on to the Caribbean, where they frequent mangrove swamps and shade coffee plantations. 

That name is kind of a problem. American redstarts are members of the wood warbler family, probably closest to the Dendroica warblers like the yellow-rump. The original redstarts are small active Eurasian songbirds, either thrushlike flycatchers or flycatcher-like thrushes, with reddish-brown tail feathers. “Start,” according to Ernest Choate’s Dictionary of American Bird Names, derives from the Anglo-Saxon steort, meaning “tail.” (I remember reading somewhere that steort is cognate with “arse.”) So, when some early British naturalist, probably Mark Catesby, encountered a small active American bird with (in the case of the adult male) orange patches in its tail, it became the American redstart. 

The name stuck even after taxonomists realized that this bird was only remotely related to the Old World redstarts. And it was given by extension to a Southwestern bird, the painted redstart, which looked and behaved somewhat like the American redstart. True, it had white tail patches, but red plumage elsewhere. Then other similar species were discovered in Central and South America, with the white patches and no red plumage whatsoever. Precedent aside, it seemed silly to call them “redstarts”; so they became “whitestarts.” Some books now call the former painted redstart a whitestart. 

All very well, but where does this leave the American redstart, which lacks white in the tail? I suppose “orangestart” might work for the male, although that sounds too much like a fortified breakfast drink. And it doesn’t do justice to the female’s yellows. Something for the American Ornithologists’ Union to look into. when they have some spare time. 

Nomenclature aside, she (or he—male American redstarts take two years to molt into the adult orange and black) was an extremely nifty bird, and it was a pleasure to meet her. That’s the good thing about birds: a flying creature can, in theory, turn up almost anywhere, whereas it’s almost certain that I will never encounter a moose or wolverine while taking out the garbage.