The warbler season is well underway. That must mean it’s time for my annual spring warbler migration primer.
True to form, the season kicked off in early April with the return of pine warblers and palm warblers. Yellow-rumped warblers are one of the next warblers to follow. If this spring is anything like last fall, there will be a lot of yellow-rumped warblers to see.
I haven’t seen many warblers yet, but what often happens when I write this annual column and say I haven’t seen many warblers yet, is that by the time the column goes to print, I’ve seen five or six other species. It’s a good problem to have and I hope it happens again this year.
Warblers are small, usually colorful, Neotropical songbird migrants. Some winter in southern U.S., but most migrate farther to Central or South America, or to the islands south of the U.S. A few may be spotted in New England in the winter, but that’s rare. Christmas Bird Counts throughout southern New England usually turn up a few warblers, especially the orange-crowned warbler.
Warblers breed throughout the U.S., but mostly in the northern states and into Canada. Some of the more commonly seen nesters in southern and middle New England include the yellow warbler and common yellowthroat.
For a magical span of about four or five weeks, we get to enjoy the spectacle of the spring warbler season. It can be tremendously rewarding and frustrating at the same time.
Warblers typically do not visit feeders and that means you have to head out into the woods or fields to see them. Sometimes you can get a good look at them and sometimes they are high in a tree looking for insects among the branches and leaves.
Leaves can make it extremely difficult to pinpoint and accurately identify the small birds, especially considering they are typically only around five inches long.
If you’re patient, you will get lucky and find a warbler lower in a tree or bush. That’s when you really appreciate the beauty of these small birds.
Here are a few of the warblers common to this part of New England. Keep an eye out for them this spring.
Look now for yellow-rumped warblers. They are blue-gray, white and black with yellow spots on both sides below the front of the wing and on the rump.
Yellow warblers, true to their name, are completely yellow with rusty brown streaks on the chest.
Also true to their name, black-and-white warblers are finely patterned with black and white plumage.
Palm warblers are brown and yellow with rusty cap and black eyeline. They also pump their tails frequently.
Northern parulas, which are often heard from tree tops, are smaller warblers that are blue above, and yellow, orange and white below.
Magnolia warblers somewhat resemble yellow-rumped warblers with the blue-gray backs, but have a yellow chest and belly with long black streaks.
One of my favorites, the American redstart, is a handsome black bird with orange spots and streaks, and a white belly. That is what the males look like in breeding plumage anyway. Depending on the species, females can be much more dull in color.
First-year birds are often not a spitting image of the adults, adding to the confusion.
The birds I mentioned above barely scratch the surface of the many warblers that pass through New England. Check out my website, www.birdsofnewengland.com, and enter “warbler” into the search field to see photos of species such as prairie, chestnut-sided, black-throated blue, black-throated green, ovenbird, worm-eating, blackburnian (a real looker), Canada (another favorite of mine), and Wilson’s. All these birds, and many more, may be found in May.
Because they are small size and often secretive by nature, the songs of the warblers come in handy when it comes to making an identification. That’s a whole different skill and a story for another day.
The spring warbler migration offers many rewards and is the highlight of the year for many birdwatchers. But you have to get out there to reap these rewards. Good luck, and let me know what you see.