BirdNirdFoley Adventures

Science, birds, and conservation.

How I Accidentally Won the Yellow-throated Lottery.

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The southeast corner of Saskatchewan is a special place for the province, bird-wise. Several species of birds, including Chimney Swift, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-peewee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Dickcissel are most abundant there. I had signed up for three Breeding Bird Atlas squares there; ten by ten kilometer squares where I would attempt to census the bird life within them. I drove to my first square; a block south of Carnduff butting up against the American border. The Souris River valley bisected it, and I was excited about what birds I might see there. I found a male Orchard Oriole singing, followed by a Turkey Vulture nesting in an abandoned schoolhouse. Not far down the road, a Grasshopper Sparrow sang his insect-like buzz from a barbed-wire fence. Along the wooded river valley, an Eastern Bluebird landed on a fencepost, his rusty-brown sides contrasting his sky-blue top.



Grasshopper Sparrow. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

 It had been a great day of birding, despite the wind’s best efforts. The valley had softened its gustiness, and I was able to make out most of the bird songs I heard when I stopped. I neared the end of the valley. The road curved upwards, leading me to the cultivated fields above. I stopped one last time and listened for anything that might be singing in the ash grove.


A song erupted from an ash near my head. I swung my head up, looking for the source of the song. It was musical and burry; Scarlet Tanager? No, too burry. Oh my gosh, Summer Tanager?!? No, not at all fast enough. Wait… could it be… a Yellow-throated Vireo?


Earlier that morning on the way to my atlas square, I had stopped at a lake where a Yellow-throated Vireo had been seen earlier in the week. Several vireos breed in Saskatchewan: Warbling, Red-eyed, Blue-headed, Philadelphia. But the most unusual, by a long-shot, is the Yellow-throated Vireo. They’re a sparrow-sized bird, white on the bottom, greenish on the top, and a bright yellow wash on their throat. They spend their time high in treetops, and they’ve only been confirmed nesting in Saskatchewan once before. I had never seen them here, so I had stopped en route in the hopes of a sighting. I had heard a single Red-eyed, and a pair of Warbling Vireos, but no Yellow-throated.



Singing Yellow-throated Vireo. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

I searched the top of the ash tree for the bird. There! A flash of movement. I focused my binoculars onto a small bird with a yellowish front. Unquestionably, a Yellow-throated Vireo. But then, unexpectedly, a second one came into view! A pair! As I watched them, I realized they were near a nest; a nest hanging from a small branch, exactly the way vireos tend to build their nests.



A suspected Yellow-throated Vireo nest. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

It’s difficult to describe the elation I felt finding this. I’ll return in a week or so, and see if the pair are still there and if they’re using the nest. If they are, it will be only the second time breeding by this species has been confirmed in the province. I can hardly wait.




I returned to the location I had seen the vireo pair two weeks later. The ash was more leafed out, so I had to walk back and forth a few times to reorient myself and find the branch I had seen the nest in. Finally, I saw it; a soft, woolly, hanging nest. I put my binoculars on it, and was delighted to see an adult in the nest. Confirming that the pair was indeed using this nest to breed in Saskatchewan meant that I had found just the second record of an occupied Yellow-throated Vireo nest in the province, and the first in nearly thirty years. I’m sure you can imagine my excitement, but if you can’t, let me assure you: it was palpable to say the least.

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A Yellow-throated Vireo sitting on its nest, the second record for Saskatchewan and the first since 1990. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

Author: birdnirdfoley

I'm the Coordinator for the Maryland & DC Breeding Bird Atlas 3. I studied how Common Nighthawks use habitat in Canada's boreal forest and how White-browed Sparrow-weavers in South Africa adjust their nest-building behaviour to climate. I go birding and fishing in my free time. Follow me on twitter @birdnirdfoley to hear updates on the adventures!

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