For the Birds Radio Program: Warblers

Original Air Date: Aug. 28, 2003 (estimated date)

The beautiful but ephemeral spectacle of warbler migration is upon us. Laura explains how to enjoy it.

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Labor Day is approaching, which means warblers are everywhere. Every time I looked out in my backyard today (the day I’m writing this, August 27), I found at least half a dozen warblers. Most often there were two or three redstarts and one Chestnut-side, Tennessee, Nashville, or Black-and-white. But a few other species turned up at least once. Each day, the species composition changes a little, so every morning I awaken to a whole new adventure in fall warbler watching. In addition to warblers, today I had Red-eyed and Solitary Vireos. Yesterday I had those plus Philadelphia Vireos.

Fall warblers are very quiet, and somehow seem more active than spring ones, though that’s in part because there are so many leaves right now that chances are higher that any move a tiny bird makes will put it behind a leaf. If you want to spend time watching warblers, you need to be patient and persistent.

Of course, fall warblers are tricky to identify even when they sit still on a branch for several minutes to give you perfect looks. The majority of them were hatched this year, so they are in their immature plumage, which can be quite different from breeding plumage. And in some species, the males molt into less gaudy feathers, making them trickier, too. But somehow the elegant simplicity of fall warblers, along with the challenge of identifying each one, is a special joy for me.

If you decide to tackle fall warblers, you need to see several features during the few seconds a warbler is in view. Try to notice whether it has wing bars or not and whether there is an eye-ring or eye-stripe. Pay attention to where any yellow might be—especially on the throat and under the tail. Notice whether it is more brown or more green on the back, and whether the back is uniformly colored or streaked. Try to keep all these points in mind, and then when the bird flits off check your field guide to see which warbler or warblers might fit the description.

Which field guide should you use? Just about any one will do. The two I’d stay away from are the Stokes field guide, which shows too few warbler plumages, and the Stan Tekiela books—Birds of Wisconsin and Birds of Minnesota—because he left out way too many species as well as plumages, and the warbler section is, in my mind, worthless. If you really want to get into it, the Peterson Field Guide to Warblers has photographs and drawings, and as much detail and information as any warbler aficionado could ask for. But that’s overkill for most people. You can identify just about every warbler easily enough with the 22-28 pages devoted to them in the standard field guides, so most people just don’t lug the 656 page Peterson Warbler guide to the field. Oddly, the Peterson warbler guide has 200 pages more than regular field guides, which cover more than ten times as many species.

Whichever tool you use to accomplish it, putting names on the many fall warblers flitting through our yards right now is a fun game. But even more satisfying for me is watching them—watching what they’re feeding on and how they get it, whether they hang out in flocks with their own species, as redstarts often do, or in mixed flocks with none of their own species, as Black-throated Green Warblers do. Is a given species seen more in coniferous or deciduous trees? Does it tend to stay high or low in the trees? Does it find insects on plant leaves or twigs, or does it flit out and catch them in mid-air? Watching redstarts dart out for airborne insects, flaring their pretty tails as they do, is a breathtaking sight, and ever so much more meaningful than just a tally mark on a checklist. Within the next five or six weeks, virtually all the warblers will be gone until next spring. Enjoy this beautiful but ephemeral miracle while you can.