The morning of May 2 2014 . Cape May N.J. My Bird of the Morning was a Yellow-breasted Chat seen and photographed at the top of an oak tree. I had just parted company from a group of happy birders; we’d had a very productive walk around Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area finding a large wave of overnight migrants. Our list of sightings was impressive including a Red-Headed Woodpecker, Northern Parulas and several Prairie Warblers. The Yellow-breasted Chat showed itself to the group just briefly, It’s been perhaps eight years since I last saw one, they’re very uncommon around where I live. They used to be, if not common, at least reliable in making an appearance every year, but populations change, much of it for the worse from most birders’ points of view.
After the rest of the group left, I headed back to see if I could see more of the Prairie Warblers. I found a Yellow-billed Cuckoo which watched me apprehensively for a while and then just as we tired of each other the Yellow-breasted Chat appeared, perhaps it wanted to get a better look at me once the group dispersed. Anyway we admired each other for several minutes and it obliged me by holding some classic Yellow-breasted Chat poses.
It’s a handsome bird with an entertaining repertoire of whistles, clucks, hoots, snatched melodies and rasping chatters,and they have a funny way of puffing out their throat as they sing. For decades the ornithological community has considered it to be a member of the wood warbler family, albeit a very aberrant one. No-one really seemed to know why it should be a wood warbler when it is so morphologically different, at the same time few seemed to feel that it was such an outsider that it ought to be cast adrift in its own genealogical boat. Anyway, recent DNA analysis has shown that it is distantly related to wood warbler but that it is also just as distantly related to blackbirds and sparrows; it still retains somewhat honorary membership in the wood warbler fold.