Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

L'esprit de 'escalier

This is a September photo of a Townsend's Warbler. It was taken next to the upper Woodland Garden pond in the Arboretum. The lack of black on the bird's throat, cheek, and crown implies that it is not an adult male. It is either an adult female, an immature female, or possibly even an immature male since they all look similar.

Here is a current photo of an adult male for comparison.

When, the non-adult-male, twisted its head I initially assumed it was watching for a predator, in the surrounding trees. This behavior is strikingly similar to what Mallards do, while feeding along the shores of Union Bay when a Bald Eagle is sitting directly above them in an overhanging Cottonwood tree.

In the Fall, the native Western Red Cedars and Western Hemlock provide a wonderful backdrop for the Upper Woodland pond and the exquisite, colorful leaves of the Japanese Maples.

When I took a second look at this series of photos the Warbler looked almost thoughtful, perhaps even pensive. As if, it was carefully reconsidering a previous action or thought. I suspect watching for danger is the real explanation for its behavior. However, the thoughtful appearance relates well to this week's post,

L'esprit de 'escalier is French. A simple internet translation results in, 'The Mind of the Stairs'. It refers to thoughts that come later - after an initiating event. Many times, when I first hear a comment, I find my mind flooded with an emotional response. Later, like when I am out birding, the logic and words, to properly express my response, finally crystallize. Click Here to read how the French phrase originated, over two hundred years ago.

A few years back, I remember reading about a study that concluded that working groups of people make better decisions when communicating by email, rather than in person. The concept may need to be more deeply examined in light of the complexities of our covid-enforced correspondence. (Plus, I doubt the email portion of the study correlates at all with our current, 140-character, 'like-driven', reactionary interactions.)  However, I still believe that thoughtful reflection and carefully considered communication improves decision-making.

This pertains to this week's post because for the last year I have been reconsidering my thoughts about what our local Townsend's Warblers eat during the Winter. When writing the post Leap Frog, and even now, I have no doubt that Townsend's Warblers are primarily upper-canopy-gleaning Insectivores. However, in the Winter, when the insects are few and far between, I wonder if their diet changes?

By the way, the Leap Frog post also explains the big-picture migratory habits of Townsend's Warblers.

My last two Townsend's Warbler posts, including the earlier Living Sunshine from 2018, often showed January photos like this, with a warbler focused on feeding in one of the Arboretum's non-native Mahonia blossoms. Although I could not reliably see any insects, I have always assumed that since Townsend's Warblers are known to be primarily insectivores they are most likely finding and consuming tiny insects among the Mahonia flowers. Insects, so tiny that I cannot see them. 

This Winter, while having second thoughts, I have been watching more closely. In fact, this morning, I went back and checked dozens of Mahonia blossoms with my largest magnifying glass. No insects! I also checked a dozen Camellia blossoms. I found only one small insect - who immediately departed.

I even started watching the Mahonias in mid-December, before they were fully bloomed, hoping to find Townsend's Warblers hunting insects in the bushes, without the flowers in bloom. I did not see any. However, I did notice them in the nearby, and comparatively, early-blooming, Asian Camellias and also occasionally under the Witch Hazel.

I was actually rather surprised to see them on the ground, especially given their normal preference for the upper canopy. This one was next to the moss-covered trunk of the Witch Hazel.

On another occasion, I found one apparently inspecting nearby leaf litter.

Both of which could be likely winter habitats for insects.

I am not sure why I was surprised to find them in the Camellias. Maybe, it was just because I had never noticed them there before.

Whether approaching from below...

...or perching and approaching from the top...

...the Townsend's Warblers were clearly feeding in these comparatively large pink flowers.

By January, Mahonia flowers are far more abundant but even so their individual blossoms are considerably smaller.

Once again, I did not see any evidence of insects being consumed by the Townsend's Warblers while visiting the flowers. Still, I could not actually see any nectar being consumed, either. What additional evidence could I find to persuade myself that these birds, who are documented as primarily Insectivores, become Nectarivores in the Winter?

A Costa Rican study (see below), referenced in Birds of the World, documented multiple feeding strategies that resulted in a diet of 98% insects, complimented with flower-feeding two-percent of the time. This is the only documentation I could find to reinforce my observations.

While watching, I was occasionally distracted by Anna's Hummingbirds and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. After years of birding, peripheral motion often seems to cause my head to turn without conscious thought. This can be a little annoying when it is just the wind, or a raindrop, striking a leaf.

Hummingbirds, especially in the Spring, will catch and eat insects. In the Winter they are primarily blossom-gleaning (or sugary feeder-gleaning) Nectarivores. On the other hand, Kinglets are primarily Insectivores, year-round.

This concept of sorting birds into guilds based on their feeding styles suddenly led to a new inspiration. (Thank you, Dennis.)

The Kinglets were hopping about, darting from one branch to the next and occasionally hovering below a leaf or a branch to inspect, collect, and consume insects. They totally ignored the blossoms.

The Hummingbirds were flying specifically from one blossom to the next, where they would stop, insert their bill, and collect nectar before zipping to the next flower.

This inspired me to ask, Given these two very different feeding styles, which of these does the behavior of the Townsend's Warblers most resemble?

The answer was obvious. The Warblers are considerably slower but they were moving from flower to flower just like the Hummingbirds. Often, they would stick their bills into the same blossom repeatedly. It seemed as if they were waiting, momentarily, for more nectar to exude. They were not hopping about the branches randomly collecting insects in the manner of the Kinglets. 

If there were insects in the blossoms I would have expected the Kinglets to occasionally find and collect one from a flower. It did not happen. Looking back, maybe the behavior of the Kinglets is the best proof that the Warblers were not finding insects in the blossoms.

The primary Insectivorous exception, was when the Warblers were searching through the leaf litter and moss. My conclusion is, in the Winter, Townsend's Warblers in the Arboretum do consume nectar. 

If I was an ornithologist I would be wanting to collect specimens and inspect the quantity of insects in their stomachs. However, I suspect nectar is processed rather quickly and harder to detect than the remains of insects. In any case, I guess it is lucky for the Warblers that my aspirations are limited to, L'esprit de 'escalier.

By the way, this week, now that the Mahonias are in full bloom, I once again document a Townsend's Warbler feeding in the Mahonia blossoms. In fact in this case the bird fed repeatedly at the same blossom. 

It would remove its bill and wait for a moment before going back for more.

It repeated the process...

...in the same blossom... 

...at least four or five times in a row. This type of repetition only makes sense if it is consuming nectar. 

Please, have a thoughtful day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city and Black Birders are welcome!


Costa Rican Study:

Tramer, E. J. and T. R. Kemp. (1980). "Foraging ecology of migrant and resident warblers and vireos in the highlands of Costa Rica." In Migrant birds in the Neotropics: ecology, behavior, distribution and conservation., edited by A. Keast and E. S. Morton, 285-297. Washington, DC: Smithson. Inst. Press.

Referenced in Birds of the World:

Wright, A. L., G. D. Hayward, S. M. Matsuoka, and P. H. Hayward (2020). Townsend's Warbler(Setophaga townsendi), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.towwar.01

Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors, and local businesses to respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

(By the way, my friend Tom Brown pointed out that the application named 'Wildflower Search' is extremely helpful. Click on the highlighted link to see for yourself.

Also, Jane Lundin has created a small package, with a lot of critical information that looks quite handy, and light, for backpacking in the mountains in Springtime. It is titled, Mountain Wildflowers of Washington.)

What are the species of the three large green trees in the background? Are they native to Union Bay?


Scroll down for the answer.


Yes! They are all three natives. The two yellow-green trees are Western Red Cedars (WRC), while the one blue-green tree, in the middle, is a Western Hemlock. The unique color of our WRCs can be picked out from miles away in our local forests. This is handy because WRCs can be a temporary shelter during a rainstorm. During a windstorm, I would keep my distance since their tops occasionally blow off.


The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional workaround is to set up my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is: LDHubbell@Comcast.Net

A few more photos:


  1. Beautiful photos!! I've been fortunate to have at first two, now three Townsend's Warblers at my feeder station. They are eating the suet. They're here every day. Gutsy little birds, they stand their ground pretty good with the other birds!

    1. Diane, Thank you and congratulations on having such exquisite taste in neighbors! Larry

  2. A marvelous and beautiful evidence-gathering gallery to support your theory about the warblers "nectarizing" their diet in the winter. Thank you!

    1. Thank you! Well said with that “necterizing” verb. They are certainly fun to watch.

  3. Larry - You are exceptional in your observational skills. Thanks for this lesson in more detailed observation, in order to figure out what these birds are doing. All we birders can learn from you to stop and pay more attention to behaviors, thus transforming “birders” back into “bird-watchers.” — Dave

    1. Dave, Thank you for your kind words! I feel very lucky to have such beautiful yellow warblers to spend time with in the middle of winter, especially when most warblers are llng gone to sunnier climes. Thanks again! Larry

  4. Thank you for your wonderful blog and yet another great post.

  5. Thank you for always having interesting post about nature and the many species that dwell in it.

    A slight correction on your title, in French, we say "l'esprit de l'escalier" or its shorter form "l'esprit d'escalier" which both mean loosely "The Spirit (Mind) of the stairs"