The yellow-breasted chat

We don’t have a clue what this thing is.

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—Ken Magnuson

The warbler family, a large one, is a favorite among birders. And even if you aren’t a birder, you may well have a sense of what a typical warbler looks like: a small, colorful, migratory songbird, likely spending much of its time in tree canopies, singing or gleaning insects with a slender, fine-tipped beak.

What to do, then, with the yellow-breasted chat? The only member of its genus (icteria), the chat has always been lumped by taxonomists with the warblers. But this is really for lack of any better place to stick it: As the American Ornithological Society website puts it, the chat is “probably misplaced in the current phylogenetic listing, but data indicating proper placement are not yet available.” In other words, we don’t have a clue what this thing is.

Aptly named, this peculiar bird sports an egg-yolk-yellow breast, a white “spectacle” marking around its eyes, and dull greenish upper parts. By warbler standards, the beak on this species is massive, with a distinctive, curved profile; and the bird itself likewise dwarfs its presumed relatives, half again as long and roughly twice as heavy as a normal warbler. While they sometimes sing from exposed perches, chats tends to be secretive. In flight, a chat appears large-headed, heavy, and sluggish, rarely rises far off the ground, and rarely seems to fly more than a few yards at a time (though, as a vagrancy-prone migratory species, it’s clearly perfectly capable of marathon journeys).

And while most warbler species have a smallish repertoire of fairly stable and distinguishable songs, the chat vocalizes in a sputtering, unpredictable torrent of squeaks, whistles, and croaks. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard; you’re more likely to confuse a chat’s song with that of the unrelated catbird than with any of the warblers.

You won’t hear a chat on the Vineyard, unfortunately; while the species breeds across much of the Southeast and West (especially in wet habitats), it has been extirpated as a breeder in New England. It is declining in numbers almost throughout its slowly shrinking range, probably the victim of habitat loss due to development.

In winter, most chats move south to Mexico and Central America. As with many migratory species, part of the explanation of the chat’s decline may be changing conditions, such as the conversion of native habitat to agricultural uses, on its wintering grounds. Members of the eastern population, judging by a wealth of records from the Gulf Coast, appear to be mostly “trans-Gulf” migrants, flying nonstop across hundreds of miles of water in the spring and then again in the fall.

This species is prone to wandering, and ranks as a “regular rarity” on the Island. Chats are recorded here virtually every year, only rarely in the spring, turning up mostly between early September and late October, and often lingering into the winter. Christmas bird-count participants often tally at least one of this species, and the 2003 count yielded an astonishing 11 individuals. In contrast to their talkative breeding-season persona, migrant and wintering chats are silent skulkers, spending most of their time concealed in thickets, and rarely uttering a sound. So I often wonder how many chats go undetected by Vineyard birders.

Despite its predictable occurrence here, the species is never numerous, and it shows a marked preference for a few very specific locations. I don’t recall ever seeing more than one chat in a day on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’d say that 90 percent of the chats I’ve seen here have been within the same few hundred square feet of habitat — a particular thicket adjacent to the parking circle at the Gay Head Cliffs.

This is where Edgartown birder and photographer Ken Magnuson comes in. Ken has been hosting a chat that he first noticed near his home back on Nov. 11. The down-Island location is somewhat unusual, and the prolonged stay of this bird has given Ken an almost unheard-of opportunity to get acquainted with the mysterious visitor.

As is typical for this omnivorous species in the fall, the bird was feeding mainly on berries and rosehips, Ken reports. (Largely reliant on insects in the summer, they feed cheerfully on seeds and fruit in other seasons.) As the weather cooled in December and the bird remained, Ken began offering it jam (a surprisingly popular fare among songbirds in the winter).

“Now,” reports Ken, “we are buds. When I go to fill the feeders in the morning, I take the jam with me, and he flies [to the] edge of the thicket, about eight feet from me, and waits. He won’t eat it till I give him 10 feet or so, but he comes out in the open.”

The bird, in short, has found a reliable resource, and appears likely to survive the winter here, an uncommon if not unprecedented occurrence for this “semi-hardy” species. And Ken has enjoyed rare opportunities to watch and photograph an elusive bird — even if ornithologists cannot decide what, exactly, it is!