A Butterfly Returns

September is coming to an end, with loud thunder and no hurricanes. The yearned-for rains have arrived, and there is a slow drip from the trees. The long, thirsty drought is over, and now it even rains when the sun is shining. Jamaicans call that “the devil and his wife fighting.”

It’s the time of year when the birds return. Return, you may ask? Of course we have birds all year round. But we regard these particular ones as our “special” birds, because they choose our garden to come back to, year after year, starting in September. They are our migratory “winter visitors” – those small, brilliant bundles of feathers, flying thousands of miles from the north (and yes, as far north as Ontario) to our island.

Our Butterfly Bird, the female American Redstart.
Our Butterfly Bird, the female American Redstart.

Two days ago, I spotted our first arrival. Inevitably, it is the female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). She is always the first to arrive, and she is a little earlier than last year. The Redstarts are always the last to leave (this year they left in late April; yes, I keep a note of these things). Jamaicans call them the “Butterfly Bird” – and they do flutter. It is said that they often segregate by the sexes; we don’t see the male so often, but he is quite flamboyant – coal black, with flashes of burnt orange, a handsome little bird. Apparently the males like to live in more forested areas, but I do hope to see one or two.

The female has flashes of white and gold in her tail, which she fans out frequently (juveniles look similar, by the way). When I first saw her this year, she darted down from the bougainvillea bush to catch an insect, quickly flying back up with a flick of the white and gold. She is not shy, our Butterfly Bird. If you are outside, she is never far away, perched on a branch, flitting about, looking to see if you disturb any insects for her to feed on. She will call to you quite a lot too… “chip, chip, chip…”

American Redstarts do not breed in the Caribbean. Like the tourists who travel here every winter when it starts getting chilly further north, our feathered winter visitors are spending a vacation down here, feeding and gathering strength before the long journey back up north to breed. On their journeys they encounter many obstacles and hazards, but they keep on going. Many migrating species fly at night, and before they spread out across the islands they gather in Florida and on the Gulf Coast.

Here's the gorgeous male American Redstart.
Here’s the gorgeous male American Redstart.

I treasure our little birds, and wonder what each individual has experienced to reach our urban garden. I am quoting here from the Jamaica Environment Trust website: “In one night the birds can cover up to 160 km, with a maximum speed of 30 mph. Many birds use up their entire fat reserve during their migration. The American Redstart uses up 50% of its pre-migration fat reserve on its 2,900 km flight to Jamaica. Up to 30%…die during migration. Many birds die, especially on cloudy nights, from encounters with tall buildings and communication towers. Some become exhausted from encounters with strong headwinds, and some are predated by other birds such as owls.”

It is still a mystery to me how birds migrate. A wonder, a miracle even. In the Americas, the smallest of birds do so – even hummingbirds. American Redstarts are only 13 centimeters long themselves. They are one of 36 species of song birds that fly down to Jamaica at this time of the year; there are 13 that are common on the island, and I would love to see them all this winter. 

We welcome our beautiful little warblers, arriving at the end of the summer. One day they are not here, and then the next they are simply with us. How do they find our garden every year? I just don’t know.

Let’s keep a look out for them. Let me know what you see!

International Migratory Bird Day 2014.
International Migratory Bird Day 2014.

International Migratory Bird Day takes place on the second Saturday in October every year in this part of the world. However, bird migration is not a “one day” occurrence, obviously. It is a year-round movement with routes as complex as airline flights. If you would like to know more about migratory birds in the Caribbean, and of course our wonderful year-round resident and endemic birds, do visit the BirdsCaribbean Facebook page and website. Formerly the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB) BirdsCaribbean is a non-profit organization committed to the conservation of wild birds and their habitats in the insular Caribbean. More than 80,000 local people participate in our programmes each year, making BirdsCaribbean the most broad-based conservation organization in the region.

BirdsCaribbean’s logo depicts the Bananaquit, a colorful, friendly and easily-recognized songbird that is a common resident on most Caribbean islands.
BirdsCaribbean’s logo depicts the Bananaquit, a colorful, friendly and easily-recognized songbird that is a common resident on most Caribbean islands.

4 thoughts on “A Butterfly Returns

  1. I saw my first returning female redstart two days ago, just like you, Emma! I heard her first, and went out to look. She was in the Japanese Hat bush, flitting around.


      1. I see both males and females in the forest near Stewart Town. I do see the males here at Seven Oaks, but not as often as the females.


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