Apr 25, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2018

Watch for Warblers in Your Yard

Just because you've never seen a warbler in your yard doesn't mean they're not there. Your best bet for finding warblers in your yard is to listen for bird sounds you don't recognize coming from the trees.

If the habitat of your yard and neighborhood is suitable—with tall trees and shrubs—it is likely that warblers will be passing through very soon, so start watching for warblers in your yard.

Skeptical? Just because you've never seen a warbler in your yard doesn't mean they're not there. Warblers don't eat seeds or fruit (usually), so it is only on rare occasions that they show up at bird feeders. Some will visit bird baths, especially those that have misters or drippers.

Your best bet for finding warblers in your yard is to listen for bird sounds you don't recognize coming from the trees. Despite the name of the group, few warbler songs are truly musical. Some are a simple bee buzz (blue-winged warbler), or teacher! teacher! teacher! (ovenbird), or a high-pitched trill (pine warbler), or something that sounds like the wheel of a rusty wheelbarrow (black-and-white warbler). You don't have to know the sounds of warblers to spot them, though. Just listen for an unfamiliar sound, then try to find the source.

Warblers can be spectacularly beautiful: orange, blue, shades of brown, and most commonly, yellow. Females aren't as colorful as their mates, but can still be gorgeous. Expect to refer to a field guide to the birds if you decide to take up backyard warbler watching. More than 50 species of warblers regularly breed in North America, but most have limited ranges. In some parts of the country, it's possible to see more than 20 warblers on a good spring day.

Here are some basic warbler watching and identification tips that should make it easier to put a name on any bird.

  • First, decide if what you are looking at is a warbler. Warblers have small, thin bills—among the thinnest of any backyard bird.
  • Start 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 down and back. Check the head and face pattern for a 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 wing bars, and those without. Noting whether the bird has wing bars will cut in half the number of species this bird could be.
  • Check the underparts. Are there streaks on its sides or breast? If the bird has yellow on its belly, does it go all the way to the tail, or is it just on the belly?
  • Check its back, if you can see it. Are there streaks or other patterns? It is often difficult to see the back of many 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 recognized easily by the spots or patches on their tail. A few warblers flash white outer tail feathers. The palm warbler wags its tail distinctively as it forages, often on the ground.
  • Check under the tail. This sounds challenging, but since warblers are so often high above us, seeing their undersides isn't too difficult. The colors of the feathers that extend from the belly to the tail tip can be distinctive in several warbler species. When you find a bird that you don't recognize immediately, work your way quickly through the above checklist. Do this before you turn to the field guide. The bird might fly away before you get a second chance to notice the details. Even if the mystery bird isn't a warbler, taking note of these details will be invaluable in making an ID.

Once you're used to studying a bird from front to back, top to bottom, with this checklist and taking mental notes, it will take only a few seconds, and make the difference between identifying a bird or letting it remain a mystery. After using this checklist a couple of times, it will become second nature, and take your bird ID skills to a new level.

About Bill Thompson, III, and Dawn Hewitt

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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