American Redstart

By John Shackford

Springtime is the time to see beautiful warblers and one of these beautiful species is the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla).  The American Redstart is a spring and fall migrant throughout Oklahoma, and is a nesting species for about the southeastern one-third of the state.  Sutton (1967, Oklahoma Birds) says:  “height of spring migration from April 20 to mid-May…while fall migration begins in early August and is largely over by September 24.

Interestingly, this species is brilliantly colored in both spring and fall.  The male shows orange-red in wing and tail as it flits through the trees.  First-year males and females are less colorful, with the orange-red of the adult male, roughly speaking, replaced by yellow; first-year males do show an yellow-orange spot on the sides of the upper breast which in adult males is orange-red.  The redstart is usually a rather easy species to identify.

But let me tell you about an occasion when it wasn’t.  On 7 September 2002, Jack D. Tyler, of Lawton, Oklahoma, and I were birding in the northwest portion of Cimarron County, about a dozen miles east of the Black Mesa.  As we walked along a small creek, we came upon a puzzling bird that was giving us a hard time to see well.  The first thing we were trying to determine was what type of bird it was.  Was it a vireo, a warbler, or some other small species.  Complicating identification was the fact the bird had no tail.  This brought up the question of a possible young bird, a remote possibility this late in the season, but something we had to consider nonetheless.  After chasing the bird for about 20 minutes, we finally lost it (or gave up—I do not recall which for sure).  We both went back to some shade near the car and decided to each draw a picture of what we had just observed before consulting bird books:  we both had seen a yellow-orange patch on either side of the upper breast (Jack also noted orange-red at the outer edge of this patch), along with one wingbar.  We then consulted a field guide and found that it had to be an American Redstart, because this was the only warbler (other than the Painted Redstart of the southwest U.S.) that has only one wingbar.  This identification conundrum illustrates how often we use several visual cues in combination to identify a bird and when we don’t have the whole package, it can quickly throw us.

I bring this record up for another reason:  Jack Tyler has been a very faithful recorder of his field observations for over 50 years.  In addition to his field notes on birds, he has kept notes on everything from flora, insects, fish, amphibians and on through mammals.  Unlike Jack, I usually only keep detailed notes on birds I am specifically researching.  When I was trying to get information together to give details of this sighting, I had nothing I could lay my hands on so I called Jack.  In 2-3 minutes he had chapter and verse of our observation.  One of the things that has spurred Jack on in his note-taking was a comment a teacher of his once made: “a short pencil beats a long memory every time.”  One final thing about Jack’s notes: he is a much better note-taker than I through sheer practice (and probably some extra brain power). 

Somewhat in my own defense about note-taking, I have reported in the Bulletin of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society (BOOS) a number of bird records I believed were worthy of wider distribution, but for species I was not specifically researching at the time.  In the BOOS we all have a great platform to discuss important records and I encourage others to do the same.  One of the primary reasons Dr. George Sutton started the BOOS was to draw amateurs and scholars alike into the process of presenting useful data on birds and to help encourage more careful observation of birds.  I think you will find working on a BOOS note will be fun as well as interesting and useful to the birding community at large.   For further information contact BOOS Editor Eugene Young.  His email address is:; also I would be glad to offer preliminary help as to how to proceed for anyone seeking it.

One more piece of information on the redstart. Dr. Sutton also relates that the American Ornithological Union check-list for 1957 gave Oklahoma City as falling within the breeding range of the redstart, although no nest has ever been reported in this vicinity.  Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data show the species nesting in southeastern Oklahoma and the frequency of nesting slightly positive since the BBS began in 1966.