Setophaga coronata (formerly Dendroica coronata coronata), the eastern form of the Yellow-rumped Warbler.
By Peter Vankevich
Beginning around Mid-October, a small brownish, streaky bird returns to Ocracoke to spend the winter. Most years, by December, it is hard to find any sizable bushes or cedar trees that at least some time during the day, do not contain several of these birds flitting around in search of food or safety. They are the eastern race of the Yellow-rumped warbler, Myrtle Warblers.
This is the most common warbler in North America. They breed in northern mature coniferous and mixed coniferous-deciduous woods of North America, well into Canada. Thers are some breeding records in the Appalachians.
During winter, they favor open areas with fruiting shrubs or scattered trees, streamside woodlands, open pine and pine and oak forests, and typical habitat on Ocracoke, shrubby edges of marshes that have cedar and wax myrtle and dunes that have bayberries. On their tropical wintering grounds they live in mangroves, thorn scrub, forests with pine, oak and fir trees and shade coffee plantations
This time of year, you can easily identify this bird by its distinctive bright yellow patch above the tail, white wing bars, and yellow streaks on the sides of the breast. Come spring, the plumage changes to a darker gray back, with black cheeks and yellow crown. Males are brighter than females.
In addition to the sharp chip note you hear from them during the winter, in spring you may also hear their song consisting of a soft fading musical trill.
Their diet consists primarily of insects and (adults and larvae) and other small invertebrates. In winter they will also eat fruits, berries and wild seeds such as from beach grasses anda and goldenrod. They may come to feeders, eating sunflower seeds, and raisins, peanut butter and suet . It’s name derives from being the only warbler able to digest the waxes found in bayberries and wax myrtles. It is this ability to eat foods other than insects that allows it to winter farther north than other warblers.
Listen: On the island it is most vocal using a chip note:
Here is the soft trilling song that can be heard in spring:
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Best time to see: Mid-fall to early spring
Where: Almost anywhere on Ocracoke including the village.
Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist
A somewhat similar migrating warbler that precedes this species on Ocracoke in the fall is the Palm Warbler. You can read about this species here.
For years the Myrtle Warbler was considered a separate species, but in 1973 the American Ornithological Society “lumped” it with its western counterpart the Audubon’s Warbler and the Guatemalan Goldman’s Warbler, to make one species. The western Audubon’s Warbler is a rare visitor winter to North Carolina and most easily identified by its yellow throat.
For those interested in birding in North America, a fascinating book is Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder by Kenn Kaufman. He chronicles his quest in 1973, when, as a teenager, to capture the record for most species spotted in a single year, travelling by hitchhiking and bus on a shoe-sting budge. At one point, he found himself in the parking lot of the Bodie-Pea lighthouse and suddenly hundres of Myrtle Warblers showed up. Soon after, a rare blizzard struck the Outer Banks. If birding can have drama – and it can – this ranks up in the tops.