Warblers, with their many varieties and their ability to quickly dash in and out of foliage, can be tricky to learn for the beginning birder. If you’re just starting to learn these diverse and colorful gems as they are migrating through our region this spring, we recommend starting with some of the most common species you’re likely to encounter. Practice looking for these five species and their unique traits and behaviors and you’ll be a warbler whiz in no time!
The Yellow-rumped Warbler is not only one of the most common warbler species encountered during migration in the Great Lakes region, but it is also purportedly one of the most abundant bird species in the world! Its population size is estimated to be around 130 million individuals, so it’s no wonder that during migration, these birds tend to dominate. The Yellow-rumped Warbler is almost always the first warbler to arrive in the Great Lakes region in spring and the last to leave in the fall. Yellow-rumps are hardy and can be more flexible in their diet compared to other warblers. Most warblers specialize on insects but the Yellow-rumped will also forage on fruit, sap, and suet, which allows a few individuals to regularly overwinter in our region. Otherwise, most travel to the southeastern part of the US, Mexico, and Central America.
ID tips: The Yellow-rumped Warbler is spotted by its bright yellow rump patch, yellow “armpits” and bluish-gray back. The adult male has a black mask, which tends to be paler in the female. Yellow-rumps will forage high and low in the canopy and sometimes even on the ground.
Although we don’t have any palm trees in the Great Lakes, we can find plenty of Palm Warblers. Palm Warblers migrate through the Great Lakes region in droves and are typically found foraging on the ground during migration. They are another early arriver like the Yellow-rumped Warbler. The Palm Warbler breeds in coniferous bogs in the boreal forest during the summer, so perhaps if it were ever renamed then “Bog Warbler” might be a suitable option.
ID tips: Palm Warblers can be a little tricky for beginning birders because they tend to be relatively drab compared to other warblers. Look for the rusty cap, yellow throat and yellow patch underneath the tail. The best way to spot a Palm Warbler is by its tail wag. These warblers are almost constantly bobbing their tails up and down while foraging, which makes it unique among warblers.
The American Redstart tends to be an iconic warbler species in eastern North America since they stand out from other warbler species for a number of reasons. The bold black and orange plumage of the adult male American Redstart is unique among Eastern North American warblers, and so is the tail fanning behavior seen in both sexes. In addition, the American Redstart more frequently catches insects on the wing, like a flycatcher. If you ever get a close-up view, you may get to see that this bird has tiny bristles that look like whiskers around its beak. It is thought that bristles like this help guide flying insects into a bird’s mouth, while protecting the bird’s eyes from flying food.
ID tips: Both male and female American Redstart have the same plumage pattern but with different palettes. The female has gray and yellow where the male is black and orange. In its first year, the young males look similar to females but can be singled out by patches of black or orange feathers growing in.
Although we often associate warblers with woodlands, the Common Yellowthroat is a bit different, as a warbler of the wetlands and grasslands. The Common Yellowthroat’s “witchity-witchity-which!” song often gives it away when it might be otherwise hidden in the reeds. The Common Yellowthroat is a common breeding bird species in the Great Lakes region.
ID tips: The Common Yellowthroat has one obvious ID mark: its yellow throat! Both the male and female have this feature, but the distinct difference to look for is the black mask of the male. The female lacks this mask and can sometimes be confused with other drab warbler species with yellow throats, such as the Palm Warbler and Nashville Warbler.
Yellow Warbler, like the Common Yellowthroat is another common breeding species in the Great Lakes that also shares its fondness for wetlands and shrubby edges between habitats. The Yellow Warbler isn’t alone in being a warbler that is yellow, which can be the cause of some confusion. Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler are all species that are bright yellow too, but Yellow Warbler definitely is the most common of the yellows. They also tend not to be very shy, often picking a relatively prominent perch to sing their loud “Sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet!” song.
ID tips: Look for the orange streaks on the chest of this warbler which distinguish it from other warblers that are yellow. The male’s orange streaks tend to be bold, whereas the female’s streaks tend to be fainter. The yellow color of the female is also more muted than the male.