There are a lot of types of birds. Current estimates put the number of known species at nearly 10,000. With such a vast array of unique creatures, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Models range from ostriches to hummingbirds with a wild and wonderful world of variation in between. More than half of Earth’s avian diversity is made up of passerines, the perching birds. This order has been incredibly successful in colonizing the globe and occupying niches on 6 continents and countless islands. It’s hard to choose favorites with so many options. Impressive seasonal migrations, entertaining antics of familiar species like corvids, and dreams of encountering exotic endemics are the kind of stuff that stoke the fire in a birder’s heart. Most naturalists, however, have at least a few species that get a little extra love and elicit involuntary smiles when they appear. One of my many, many personal favored songbirds is a curious critter called the Yellow-breasted Chat.
Even at a glance, the chat is a flashy, distinctive bird. The subdued olive feathers of the upperparts contrast with a particularly loud shade of yellow that spills down its throat to the belly. White spectacles rest on the bridge of a thick, sturdy beak, and its long tail is often cocked at a jaunty angle. Larger than a sparrow but smaller than a robin, the chat can be surprisingly difficult to track down due to its secretive, skulky habits. Dense thickets and brushy tangles are its preferred habitat, with breeding populations spread across much of the United States and wintering grounds in Central America.
Early in the spring, male chats can be quite conspicuous. An improvisational song of varied noises and mimicked sounds is often performed atop an exposed perch, from which they launch into a fluttering in-flight display. The rest of the year, both sexes remain mostly silent and typically keep to vegetated cover. Even the nest is impossibly well-hidden, tucked away in a low patch of shrubbery. Although this species is prone to wandering and occasionally lingers in winter far north of its usual seasonal range, its behavior means that it is all too often overlooked. The challenge of chat-finding increases their appeal, as one generally needs to be a good birder or a lucky birder to locate one.
Perhaps the most curious chat fact is that its taxonomic relationships remain poorly understood, even in the modern age of DNA. It has traditionally been considered an aberrant member of the wood-warbler family, Parulidae, but its size, structure, behavior, and vocalizations led many to question this placement. Alternative suggestions have proposed kinship with blackbirds, tanagers, mimids, and more. For now, the chat is still listed in Parulidae, but the newest evidence suggests that it is a very early offshoot of the entire warbler/blackbird/sparrow clade. Some authorities place it nearer to the blackbirds in Icteridae, others in its own family, but only continued research will reveal more about the origins of this unusual species. Any organism that continues to stump our best technologies is an inherently fascinating beast as far as I’m concerned, and chats do it with style!
Although their breeding range once extended into New England, Yellow-breasted Chats have become fairly hard to find north of New Jersey. Long Island and New York City typically see a handful of reports each spring and fall, with individuals occasionally sticking around into the winter. One of my personal best “self-discoveries” was a chat I stumbled upon at Jones Beach in October 2015. I was chatting with some other birders during a great migration movement when the bird popped out of the hedgerow at the Coast Guard station, and I was the only one facing the right way to see it. I quickly put word out on the listserv, and dozens of people flocked to the beach to have a look. Over the next few days, “my” chat proved to be incredibly cooperative and offered cripplingly good views as it foraged and sunbathed. It had a habit of coincidentally reappearing whenever I approached the hedgerow during my explorations of the park, much to the joy of patient watchers who’d been waiting for it to come out.
I wasn’t certain that I could count on this sneaky species for my 2016 list. Apart from the Jones Beach bird, I’d only ever seen one additional chat at Higbee Beach in New Jersey during the 2014 World Series of Birding. Even though I love these guys and always look out for them in the appropriate habitat, I knew there was no guarantee I would be able to add one to my hoped-for 400. Saturday city plans afforded me an opportunity to visit Central Park before meeting up with friends, and I set out for the Ramble to look for a reported Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
As I passed through the Maintenance Field, I noticed a passel of birders staring across the meadow into some dense foliage. When I heard that one of them had just seen a chat, I elected to stick around and join the stakeout. A fruiting tree was hosting plenty of activity, including tanagers, orioles, robins, and warblers. After 20 minutes, I spotted a flash of movement on a shaded limb. Did I see yellow? Raising my binoculars, I could make out the rear two-thirds of the bird among the branches: dark back, light belly, long tail. It moved its head to snag a berry and I glimpsed its bespectacled face and stout bill. As soon as I said the word “chat” aloud, it was gone before anyone else could see it, as is the traditional fashion of its species. My vigil had proved to be a worthwhile gamble. I was happy to see a familiar feathered friend, and I was even able to connect with the flycatcher afterwards. All’s well that ends well!
Year List Update, September 10 – 394 Species (+ Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher)