Spring Warblers


By James McGuire

Contributing columnist

I recently spotted my first warbler of 2024’s spring migration season. As is often the case, this debut bird was a yellow-rumped warbler.

Yellow-rumps are the Eastern members of the myrtle warbler’s collective duo. The Western version is the is Audubon’s warbler. A less formal moniker for these sprightly little birds is the colloquial “butter butts.”

Yellow-rumps are decidedly pretty birds. This one was a bright-hued male—slate-gray, black eye mask, white throat, a daub of yellow on his crown, yellow patches on his sides, and on top of his back at the base of the tail, the namesake yellow rump.

A butter butt in full regalia!

Yellow-rumps are one of the warblers I can manage to recognize on sight. Plus being among the warbler clan’s earlier arriving species, I’m always delighted to spot one of these bright-colored little birds because it not only confirms that that spring is truly here to stay, but also that the annual warbler wave of migrating birds in northbound passage has begun.

Later that same day several additional yellow-rumps showed up in the dooryard box elder of our cottage on the Stillwater.

Among their company was a different warbler—sporting only black-and-white lengthwise stripes. Markings that also made identification as a male Black-and-White Warbler easy.

Warblers are, to put it mildly, confusing. At least they are to me. When it comes to putting a species name to a specific bird, I’m repeatedly baffled.

Tiny birds, in dim light, flitting about high up amongst spring’s burgeoning canopy—and at least half the different species looking so much alike they’re all but indistinguishable…it’s no wonder us birding duffers get confused!

Nevertheless, I do wish I were better at identifying warblers. Better at recognizing their bright, energetic forms way up there amid the greening treetops. Better at remembering their various exuberant and melodious songs. Better at being able, on sight or sound, to call them by their proper name.

Names matter. Not that I’d find them any less enchanting. To paraphrase the Shakespearean rose adage—a warbler by any name is still a beautiful bird.

Identification is not essential for pleasure. You can delight in something without knowing all about it since an emotional response requires neither facts nor logic.

Still, when I’m ambling about a spring woodland and spy a tiny warbler or hear its ringing song, I’d like to know which of these feathered jewels has momentarily captured my attention and heart—simply because I may have questions. Where did it come from? Where is it going? Is it common to these parts during the spring migration, or have I just been privy to a special treat?

To learn more about something you must begin with its name. Reading a species account requires a name. So does adding the bird to a “life list” or seasonal record.

But even if all you want to do is call a friend and share what you’ve seen, or mention it to your wife over the dinner table—it’s better if you can give the particular bird a name.

Specifics do matter, which is why I keep plugging away, spring after spring, at improving my warbler skills.

Of course, I’m not the only one who often finds making an on-the-fly warbler field I.D. bewildering. Even the real experts are regularly challenged since plumages are often quite similar—especially on females and juveniles.

Moreover, warblers are small, highly active, and regularly forage amid the treetops which—though not yet fully leafed out—are sufficiently dense to screen subtle markings sometimes necessary for field identification.

According to Peterson’s “Field Guide to North American Warblers,” the U.S. boasts 60 species, all but one members of the Praulidae Family. (The lone exception, the Olive Warbler, found in the high mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, has its own family.)

Of the remaining 59 species, which are properly referred to as wood-warblers, Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America,” 5th addition, says 40 occur regularly, plus 7 accidentally in this part of the country.

May is prime warbler time. The diminutive birds travel mostly by night, then rest and “refuel” during the day. Whether you’re fishing for crappie at a local lake, wading a stream for smallmouth, scouring the woods for morel mushrooms or wildflowers, or just working in the backyard—chances are there’ll be an occasional warbler in a nearby tree. Maybe several…and quite possibly all different.

Don’t let this frighten you, however. Not all wood warblers are common Ohio visitors, even though their annual migration route takes them across the state.

For example, you’re not likely to spot a rare Kirtland’s Warbler on its way to summer breeding in a restricted patch of northern Michigan jackpines.

Other warblers are equally unlikely for the casual birder.

I’m actually getting to where most of the warblers I regularly see are familiar—even if their name isn’t exactly on the tip of my tongue. Not every warbler requires careful inspection of obscure marks while you fumble through the field guide.

A couple of days ago I heard a distinctive “zeee, zeee, zee-zoo, zee!” coming from an evergreen thicket and saw a warbler with a bright-yellow face, olive back and crown, and black chest…a Black-throated-Green Warbler. A few minutes later I saw a Yellow Warbler in a nearby hackberry.

After years of bemoaning my warbler woes, recognizing four warblers upon sight in less than a week was—for me—astonishing!

Granted, it doesn’t insure I’ll know the next warbler to come along. But it does mean you can teach an old dog new tricks—albeit slowly.

Mighty exciting and encouraging news as spring greens the land and May’s woodlands are again filled with warblers.

Reach the writer at [email protected]

No posts to display