Neotropical migrants raising their young in our canyons

male Lazuli bunting bird | Wenatchee

Barry McKenzie photo
A male Lazuli bunting, taken in late May along No. 2 Canyon Road.

Hanging clothes on my backyard clothesline gives me a chance to look west, up into the V-shaped Number Two Canyon, where steep sagebrush-covered slopes plunge down to the brushy canyon bottomland.  As I hang deep-blue jeans, bright white sheets, and a sienna orange tee shirt, I picture these three vivid colors marking a singing male lazuli bunting, just up the canyon. He is perched atop a serviceberry, at the edge of the tangle of trees and shrubs that shade the small creek.  As I hang a bright yellow towel, my mind’s eye next sees the yellow-breasted chat, sulking along the streambank and singing a jumbled series of clucks, rattles, whistles, and squaks.  Lazuli buntings and yellow-breasted chat are two of over 35 species of migrating neo-tropical songbirds that arrive in our local canyons each May from their winter habitats in Mexico and Central America.  The multi-storied thicket of dense trees and shrubs offers neo-tropical migrant birds safe cover, nesting habitat, and a plentiful supply of insect and berries to feed young.

male lazuli bunting

Barry McKenzie photo A yellow-bellied chat, taken in late May along No. 2 Canyon Road.

The canyon’s small stream provides a summer-long lifeline of water for the resident plants and animals. The source of the water is snow that falls on the surrounding forest-clad ridges. The spring meltwater flows as surface runoff and later the creek is replenished by groundwater-fed springs.  Scattered tall black cottonwood and big-leaf maple trees tower above a chaotic jumble of shrubs:  rose, mock-orange, elderberry, serviceberry, black hawthorn, redoiser dogwood, and coyote willow.  Birds gain needed protein by feeding on a myriad of insects and spiders that themselves feed on the plant stems, leaves, and flowers. Birds and insects continue to feed on newly ripening fruits, from early June and late August.

Both yellow-bellied chat and lazuli bunting males establish and defend food-gathering territories to glean caterpillers, beetles, ants, and spiders from shrub branches, and to pluck ripe serviceberries and chokecherries. Yet within the brush thickets, buntings and chat gather these foods at different heights (vertical partitioning), so are not directly competing with one another for the finite supply of protein and carbohydrates.  Bunting and chat nests are threatened by the same set of nest predators who eat eggs and young: raven, crow, jay, magpie, chipmunk, and snakes. Another migrant, the brown-headed cowbird, lays its own eggs in the nest of both bunting and chat, a behavior called nest parasitism, This lowers survival rates of the eggs and young in the host’s nest.  To successfully raise young to adulthood by mid-summer, bunting and chat require the combination of good habitat, adequate food, and successfully avoiding nest predators.

Take an early morning walk up a road in one of our local canyons to see and hear these two spectacularly colorful male birds who also happen to be very loud singers.  What looks at first glance to be a messy tangle of brush is critical shrubby habitat for a suite of snow-bird songbirds.

Register now for Susan’s next 12-week Wenatchee Naturalist course, offered through Wenatchee Valley College Continuing Education.  Both daytime and evening classes are available,  Sept. 16-Dec. 9.  The course includes four all-day field trips.

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