May 8, 2019 | Featured Web Article

Spring Warbler-watching Basics

Migrant warblers can pass through almost any backyard in spring and fall, and some may even stay to nest through summer. This is a female yellow-rumped warbler.
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For the vast majority of bird watchers, spring means warblers. Or perhaps it is the other way around: warblers mean spring! It doesn't really matter which comes first, because the two are inextricably linked in the minds of watchers from Boston to Santa Barbara, from Point Pelee to the upper Texas coast. No matter when spring comes to your part of the world, warblers will be coming with it.

Spring warbler watching means calling up information that has been stored, unused in the memory banks, for nearly a year. This article is designed as an exercise to stretch and warm up the mental muscles in preparation for the coming waves. When you have the right mindset, you will be amazed by how quickly you remember.

One reason spring warbler watching appeals to so many people is that the birds are striking. Most of them are easy to identify—although not always easy to see. There is little chance of confusion when you see a male hooded warbler or an American redstart or a red-faced warbler or a black-throated gray. Open up any field guide and the picture jumps off the page.

Females are often as easy; in many cases they are simply slightly duller versions of the males. Bird watchers who see a spring warbler and draw a blank usually do so because they have not seen the bird before, or because so many birds have been seen in such a short period that they are suffering from memory lock. After all, more than 50 warblers regularly occur in North America in the spring, and in some parts of the country it is possible to see more than 20 species on a good day. Spring warblers can sometimes be almost too much of a good thing.

For those anticipating their first spring with warblers, or who have not been able to spend as much time with these birds as they would like, I'll start with some basic warbler watching and identification tips that should make it easier to put a name on any bird.

Basic Warbler Watching: A Checklist

First, decide if what you are looking at is a warbler. This is not hard most of the time. The only real area of confusion involves the vireos, which tend to be plain greenish birds. In general, vireos are less colorful, slower moving, and have larger bills than warblers. When you do find a bird that you don't recognize immediately, work your way quickly through a mental checklist. Do this before you look at the book! The bird may fly away before you get another look, but the book will still be there.

Start your checklist with an overall impression of color and pattern. Many warblers are so striking that you may be tempted to stop there. Don't! An all-yellow bird can be any of a half-dozen warblers, and if all you note is its color, you will end up frustrated. Once you have the general color and pattern, start on the specifics.

Start at the head and work back. Check the head and face pattern for cap, eyelines, and color. Face pattern is often critical in identifying similar species.

Check for wing bars. Warblers break down into two broad groups, those with wings bars and those without. Noting whether the bird has wing bars will cut the number of birds under consideration in half.

Check the underparts. Are there streaks or a breast band? If the bird has yellow below, does it go all the way to the tail, or is it just on the chest? If you can see the back, check for streaks or other patterns. It is difficult to see the backs of warblers because they spend so much time near the treetops. Fortunately, the back pattern is rarely a key characteristic.

Check the tail. Many bird watchers forget to check warblers' tails. Some species can be easily recognized by their white tail spots. A few species flash white outer tail feathers. The palm warbler wags its tail as it forages, often on the ground.

Check the undertail coverts, which are the feathers that cover the underside of the tail; usually, they extend about halfway out the length of the tail. Checking undertail coverts may seem a bit technical to many people, but it is often a snap because a lot of warblers are seen only from below.

It takes only a few seconds to run through the checklist, and it can make the difference between identifying a bird and letting it get away. After using it a couple of times, it becomes second nature, and you can identify nearly every warbler you see.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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