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Autumn Warblers.

September 17, 2011

Wood Warblers

September heralds the autumn migration season for many of the birds that migrated to (or through) Ohio last spring.  These birds have raised a family, and it is time to head south to warmer locations for the coming winter.  And their kids are heading south as well.  This is a big time for birders!

Two migration seasons, and why spring is easier than autumn for birders

Bird migration is a grand drama played out twice per year in temperate and colder climates.  Seasonally speaking, autumn migration is both a good time and a trying time for birders.  To understand why, let’s take a brief look at spring migration.  In April and May, migrating birds are heading north as the weather warms up after the winter season.  They are heading to their breeding grounds to raise their offspring.  As the numbers of insects increase, so does the food supply.  So birds expand to fill territories that were without enough food during the winter months.

Spring migration is the best time of the year for many birders.  All of the migrants they see flooding through their areas are adult birds wearing their most colorful breeding plumage- the birds are ready to attract a mate and raise a family as soon as possible.  This means that birders are seeing birds in their finest plumage, which makes them easier to identify.

Now, in autumn migration, a good amount of the birds heading south are immature birds born this past summer.  They have yet to attain their colorful breeding plumage.  The adults that raised them have often molted after the nesting season, meaning that they have a new coat of feathers that is not as brilliant as their former mating feathers. This results in duller-looking birds during the autumn migration.  This is a challenge to birders, who not only must have an idea of what both males and females of a species look like- which can be quite different due to sexual dimorphismbut they also need to know what an immature bird looks like, which can be different than what its parents look like.  As you can imagine, this can be a difficult task.

Warblers in autumn

In North America, Wood Warblers are among the most popular bird migrants because of their bright colorsBroadly speaking, these are small birds who hunt for insects in the leaves of trees.  Most of them winter in the southern US or Central/South America, and a good amount of them breed in the northern US and Canada.  They tend to have small almost needle-like beaks for catching insects on the leaves of trees and plants.  They often have distinctive songs.

In the last 2 to 3 weeks, I’ve seen a decent amount of warblers on my various nature walks.  They tend to travel in modest-sized flocks with other warblers, or even along with mixed feeding flocks of other birds.  There’s safety in numbers, so this makes sense.  More eyes to see potential predators as well as potential food sources. 

Here are some of the warblers I’ve photographed.  They can be tricky to get good photos of because they move around a lot foraging for food, and they are in trees and bushes which can lead to difficulty in seeing a whole bird who happens to be facing your way.  The challenge is part of the attraction to seeing and identifying these birds- my identifications are of a best-guess variety here.

This little one is scouting out the leaves for insects- warblers do this a lot, often continually moving.

Peeking through the undergrowth.

Glimpsed through the leaves.  Who is watching who?

This is a Black and White Warbler, which is rather distinctive-looking.  It moves  more like a nuthatch than a typical warbler, climbing up and down tree trunks and branches.

A good view of the striped head of the Black and White Warbler.  This is one of the easier warbler species to identify.

This is a handsome Black-Throated Green Warbler, often identified by its somewhat buzzy song: ‘zu-zee, zu-zu-zee’

This is a Cape May Warbler– it has a distinctive facial pattern.

A Chestnut-Sided Warbler.

Here’s a Chestnut-Sided Warbler with the chestnut-colored feather streak visible on its side.

This colorful bird is a Magnolia Warbler.

This Nashville Warbler sat still for a few seconds, allowing me to get a good picture- I was very happy 🙂

An American Redstart, a common warbler seen in Ohio, notable for flashing its color patches as it searches for food.

This Tennessee Warbler scans the leaves above for insects.

A Yellow-Rumped Warbler searches for insects in a Wingstem wildflower’s leaves.

For beginning birders, autumn can be a serious challenge.  Spring will give you less problems identification-wise, but if you wish to enjoy nature’s beauty, any season is a fine season.

44 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2011 8:41 pm

    Love these beautiful birds. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the deck with my feathered friends of late, waiting for a cardinal or blue jay to stop by for a snack. You have a very good eye, to have caught some of these photographs. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

  2. September 17, 2011 8:57 pm

    Good grief! Great captures.

  3. September 18, 2011 12:00 am

    Interesting article and photos, Tracy! You mentioned that migrating adult birds molt after the breeding season and their new feathers are not as colorful. I wonder if this explains the dull red feathers of the male Cardinals I have seen lately.

    I had no idea there are so many warblers. Now I am curious about how many can be found in Georgia. I don’t see them at my feeders, but I guess they want insects – not seed.

    Your Nashville Warbler photo is wonderful! So nice when they cooperate for a second or two.

  4. September 18, 2011 1:19 am

    These warblers are adorable. It’s amazing how many varieties of them there are. Your photos are beautiful. 🙂

    • September 19, 2011 4:42 pm

      Thanks, E.C.! There are quite a lot of them for sure, it can be tough to keep track of them all!

  5. Barbara Rodgers permalink
    September 18, 2011 8:17 am

    I had no idea there are so many kinds of warblers. The Nashville Warbler was very co-operative and its portrait is beautiful! You must have a lot of patience to get so many nice shots.

    • September 19, 2011 4:43 pm

      Thanks, Barbara! The little Nashville was quite cooperative, I was behind a bush and spied it perching, and had time to get a decent focus. Plus this one wasn’t moving about for a small amount of time, just enough to snap the photo!

  6. September 18, 2011 10:56 am

    Just returning from Magee and Ottawa I can attest to the fact the fall warbler ID’ing can be challenging. A good book to have when it comes to identifying some rather difficult birds is “Identify Yourself” by Bill Thompson III. He just doesn’t talk about difficult warbler ID, but also other birds that are tricky.

    • September 19, 2011 4:46 pm

      I ordered “Identify Yourself” today Les, thanks for the tip- it sounds like a useful title. Looking forward to seeing what you saw at those great Ohio birding spots!

  7. September 18, 2011 11:42 am

    Great captures of these little birds. I know the challenges of photographing them. We did not have a lot come back through this fall and can only hope Spring returns quickly. Thank you for sharing some of my favorite birds.

    • September 19, 2011 4:49 pm

      Sorry to hear about the lack of warblers, Joleen- I remember your wonderful spring warbler photos from earlier this year, spring is worth waiting for 🙂

  8. John Northcutt Young permalink
    September 18, 2011 4:12 pm

    The arrival of your post in my e-mail is a joy. Thanks

  9. September 18, 2011 4:20 pm

    Great post as usual! I find it easier to identify all birds in the spring, before the trees leaf out fully. I don’t know how you got the photos you did, I chase warblers around trees all the time. They never sit still, and they are always hiding in the leaves.

    • September 19, 2011 5:10 pm

      Thanks, quietsolopursuits- autumn migration surely means that one appreciates spring all the more. April certainly isn’t as bad foliage-wise!

  10. September 18, 2011 6:14 pm

    What a lot of warblers. I am waiting for our migrants to arrive.

  11. September 18, 2011 11:37 pm

    Seeing your excellent photos of the warblers was so enjoyable! They are gorgeous little ones!

    We are now seeing migration-size flocks of birds and today a huge “V” of geese flew over, I think just passing through from the north.

  12. September 19, 2011 9:21 am

    I had not thought so clearly of the differences between the Spring and Fall migrations before. Loved what you said: “Who is watching who?”

    Another special event to look for is the migration of the monarch butterflies!

    Thanks, Ellen

    • September 19, 2011 5:13 pm

      Thank you, Ellen! I’ve spotted some monarchs recently, and some of their caterpillars munching upon milkweed. It’s hard enough imagining the birds migrating, but these insects doing so is truly amazing.

  13. September 19, 2011 7:05 pm

    Wow, you have some serious birds up there in Ohio. I am glad you commented on my blog so I was able to find yours. I will subscribe to yours so I can see more. Thanks for sharing.

  14. September 19, 2011 9:06 pm

    Beautiful, graceful Warblers. I learned so much today. I didn’t that there are so many varities with distinct patterns and colors. Some almost blending with the leaves. You have a good eye, a crisp camera results, a vast knowledge about these stunning creatures of the sky. I wish one day I too can see in person such a migratory magic. Stay blessed and best wishes to you and your family.

  15. September 19, 2011 10:08 pm

    Hi. You have some great photos of very mobile birds…I used to go with Canadian Nature Federation tours as the botanist and envy the ability of the birders to know a bird by subtle markings or their calls. My binoculars were always trained on the wrong tree!! Jane

    • September 21, 2011 12:46 pm

      Thanks Jane! It’s certainly difficult to get decent shots of these birds. If they’d just hold still a bit longer…

  16. September 19, 2011 10:18 pm

    You really worked long and hard to bring all of these shots to us! Thanks for giving me a peek into a part of nature we don’t have here in SE Texas. I really enjoyed! 🙂

    • September 21, 2011 12:48 pm

      Thanks! There’s a lot of interesting birds in Texas, you’re right in between east and west and have so many to choose from 🙂

  17. September 19, 2011 11:38 pm

    These Warblers are such pretty birds. I’ve seen only a couple passing through, and I’m not sure of the identities. They certainly are hard to photograph but you managed to capture so many. Informative post too!

  18. September 20, 2011 3:08 pm

    My cat says thank you!

  19. September 22, 2011 9:41 am

    Great shots and variety; you obviously have a good eye and are an avid birder! I saw two new (to me) warblers this spring/summer, but haven’t seen any lately – though this probably has more to do with a lack of time to be out in the woods. Thanks for the interesting info.

    • September 22, 2011 3:56 pm

      Glad you saw 2 new warblers! It was like that for me this year, I’d see less than I thought I would see, and then a big flock of them would hang around where I was walking and I’d stand there for an hour trying to get pictures of them 🙂

  20. keekeepod permalink
    September 22, 2011 9:12 pm

    Thanks for this timely post. I found a dead bird with a broken neck today 😦 and didn’t know what it was. This post pointed me to warblers. A quick search turned up female yellow warbler.

  21. September 29, 2011 5:13 pm

    Love your captures of these little fast moving fiends! It’s like a birding trip all bundled up neatly into one post 🙂 Particularly nice Cape May, we’ve been banding a few but they haven’t been quite as showy as your individual.

    • September 29, 2011 11:29 pm

      I bet you’re getting much better views of them- they’re not moving around much in the hand at least! 🙂


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