Black-and-white movies and black-and-white photography, forms of art that produce more an array of grays really, hold a special place in time and imagination, but when I think of nature, I think more color and especially when thinking of warblers.
The versatile warbler featured in this installment of A Bestiary . . . Tales from a Wildlife Garden is quite surprising. The Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia, a new world warbler, with a genus of its own, is, indeed, simply and strikingly, pure black-and-white. Its scientific name, a challenge to pronounce, is telling. Mniotilta, a greek word meaning moss plucker, speaks of another speciality regarding this small songbird. The Black-and-white Warbler comes equipped with an extended hind toe and portly legs, along with a long curved bill allowing the somewhat bellicose bird more ease in clinging to trunks of trees while picking off layers of bark in pursuit of insects.
Seen from a distance, its behavior . . . more similar to a Brown Creeper or Nuthatch . . . may cause the observer to misidentify this determined warbler, as, in truth, was the case with this author upon sighting it for the first time in one of our giant Rock Maples. Early on, the Black-and-white Warbler was classified as a Black-and-white Creeper.
Female and juvenile Black-and-white Warblers do not have the black mask or blotches on their throats as do the males. Females may have a bit of a creamy patch on their face. All are completely black-and-white with a variation in their striping and have two white wing bars. Black-and-white patterns found on the crown and tail feathers seem to mirror one another somewhat.
One of the earliest warblers to hurry back to our gardens, the treble tones of its sweet songs and calls add a delightful texture in experiencing the outdoors in early April. Woe to the poor sleeping caterpillars and hibernating butterflies not able to stir in the chill of daybreak within our New England spring mornings.
The male Black-and-white Warbler will defend its territory longer than most warblers. Throughout and beyond its breeding season within its choice boreal mixed or deciduous forests along the eastern United States up into Canada then stretching northwest and southwest in a pattern on a map similar to that of its crown, males rush at other Black-and-white Warblers and even Nuthatches and Chickadees. This combative tendency extends even onto its winter grounds in Florida or into Central and South America.
Though frequently seen creeping, as a queen on a chessboard, moving forwards, backwards and sideways along trunks of trees, Black-and-white Warblers choose a more concealed nest site. Often within an understory using leaf litter to form a cup, the female constructs her well hidden, moss-padded nest low to the ground, oftentimes near the base of a tree.
My featured Black-and-white Warbler was captured a few years ago high up in one of our two-hundred year old Rock Maples, still standing mightily along the south side of the old farmhouse. You can see this little female in action here . . . engaged in plucking off the outer bark in hopes of finding some insect to munch or perhaps to feed one of the pairs four to six nestlings or fledglings. Her mate, for life I believe, will help her in feeding their young but she alone does the building of the nest and incubating of the eggs.
Though a feisty protector of their territory and family, the male Black-and-white Warbler cannot preserve their clutch or nestlings, for the eight to twelve days they remain in their nest, from the harms of Cowbird predation or sly chipmunks and other natural predators.
These conspicuous warblers are listed as common and of Least Concern though there are reports that due to pesticides and fragmenting of forests there has been a measured fall in their count within the United States.
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