Warbler Watching

Is there anything more exciting than a treeful of warblers?  Maybe just one thing – a treeful of warblers that you’ve positively identified.

After several weeks of being too busy to do any birding, I finally had time off on the perfect fall morning and made myself time.  So, after several days of looking forward to  warbler watching, Saturday morning finally arrived.  The weather was every bit as beautiful as forecasted – cool and clear and not too windy.  I stepped out of the car at Ken Reid Conservation Area just north of Lindsay, On. and pulled my camera out of my bag… and saw that my telephoto lens was not on it.  Right.  Of course not.  I had switched lenses for something last week, and so the telephoto lens I use for birding, that I leave on my camera always, was at home, in a box, on my desk.  Sigh.  Great.

So I put my camera away and got out the binoculars.  I’d just have to bird the old-fashioned way.

It wasn’t long before we came upon a swarm of busy warblers.  At least four different species, flitting rapidly between trees, mostly hidden among the leaves.  A tail would peek out here, a head there, or a wing.  There was no snapping photos to study later, and I got busy committing to memory as many colours and patterns as possible.  One showed itself enough for me to know it for the Black-throated Green Warbler.  Another was probably the Blackburnian.  And there was another that just wouldn’t hold still.  Its underside and tail was about all I could get: yellow breast, white belly and tail with a broad dark band at the end.  As it turns out, that was all I needed.  It was the Magnolia Warbler, whose tail pattern is diagnostic.

I love when I can identify a bird from just a brief glimpse, particularly from behind as they fly away.  Like when I’m driving, and out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a bird fly up from the fence line.  Broad bands of white outer tail feathers.  A meadowlark.

So, here are a few diagnostic warbler tails – do you know who they belong to?

The first two belong to the same species.  The first is an adult male and the second is a first year male (though a female would be the same).  If you guessed American Redstart, you’re correct!  The dark terminal band and yellow or orange base of the tail is diagnostic.

First-year male American Redstart

The third photo shows the diagnostic yellow underparts, undertail coverts and tail of the Yellow Warbler.

Yellow Warbler

The fourth photo shows the Palm Warbler’s diagnostic tail pattern: black base, white end and yellow undertail coverts.

Palm Warbler

Isn’t it thrilling to identify a bird for certain by just the underside of its tail?  I studied sort of the same thing in school with ducks – most ducks can be identified, sexed and aged with just their wings.  It’s knowledge that has come in handy in the field more than once and helped me to ID  a flying duck at a distance.

If you want to find out more, I highly recommend the following:

The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle

Species, Age and Sex Identification of Ducks Using Wing Plumage by Samuel Carney


Until next month, wishing you lots of warblers!


About Rachel Lancashire, ON

Rachel Lancashire lives and birds in Ennismore, ON. Groundcovers nursery worker by day, she is a freelance writer and artist in her spare time. She has had articles about birds and wildlife published in Nature Friend, GreenPrints and The Banner. Her art, inspired by birds, can be found on her blog, MyWildMuses, and in her Etsy shop, Miss Sitta’s Nest.

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One Response to Warbler Watching

  1. Tammie Hache says:

    Excellent i.d tips here, Rachel! Thanks for that!