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Autumn Warbler Identification Blues!

September 20, 2014

Birdwatching tip: September is not the best month to start birding!  Don’t be alarmed if the following pictures aren’t the most striking views of warblers, that’s the idea of this post 🙂

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Why do I say this about September?  Well, the autumn migration is underway, and that means you’ll probably see a decent amount of wood warblers.  So far so good.

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There are two problems with autumn migration.  The first is that unlike the spring, the leaves are on the trees in September the whole month.  In spring, the leaves are just coming out and so you get a period early in spring migration where it’s easier to see the birds.  But in autumn, they can be obscured behind a full complement of leaves.

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The second problem with autumn migration is that it takes place after the summer’s young have been raised.  There are lots of immature birds making their first migration this month.  The big problem with immature birds is that they frequently look quite different than their adult parents.  They are often duller-colored and are without the distinctive patterns that their parents show- this is because they haven’t reached maturity where attracting a mate is important.

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So, it is harder to see warblers in September, and when you do see them, it is often harder to identify them.  That’s a tough situation for a beginning birder.

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I find it helpful to take pictures and study them later.  Many a time I will identify a bird from the picture I took, when at the time I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

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There are certain features to look for on birds, especially immature warblers.  The pattern and coloration on the underside of the tail is helpful.

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Often there are warblers that you just have to say, ‘I’m not certain what it is.’  That’s OK- don’t let it drive you crazy 🙂

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Often I’ll see a duller-looking warbler with a bit of yellow on the breast and a slightly darker head and think ‘Nashville Warbler!’  Nashvilles are common birds and it’s almost a joke when I say ‘yep a Nashville’ because unless you get a good look, it can be hard to tell.  The following picture is most likely a Nashville, by the way.

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Some immature warblers look so similar that birders recognize this in a pseudo-identification, such as a ‘Baypoll‘.  This is a combination of a Bay-Breasted and a Blackpoll Warbler, the immatures of which look very much alike.

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Another tough identification issue is demonstrated by the picture above- when you just see the belly of an immature bird.  This view is common but hard to ID, though you can narrow it down by looking at the tail color and pattern.

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It’s not uncommon for me to mark down ‘warbler species’ on a checklist when I cannot identify an immature warbler.  It’s not the end of the world, and as more and more autumn migrations go by, you find yourself getting better and better at identifying them.  But it takes time and patience.

So, even though I love the autumn weather, my favorite birding season is spring, as in spring migration (April & May).  Then, the warblers and other birds have their best feathers on display for mating purposes.  This makes it a lot easier to identify them.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2014 11:13 pm

    So very true! I think that the same difficulty in making identifications holds true for many types of birds, almost all ducks look like female mallards in the fall, and don’t get me started on shorebirds!

    • September 21, 2014 8:44 am

      You are 100% correct! ‘Every duck looks like a female Mallard’ and ‘I have no idea what immature shorebird that is’ are even harder than immature warbler identification to me…at least with the warblers I see more of them, so I have a better chance with them!

  2. September 21, 2014 5:23 am

    We’re just so excited to have the warblers passing through and entertaining us that sometimes it’s okay if they do it anonymously!

    • September 21, 2014 8:44 am

      That’s the best attitude to have, Robert! And over time you do get better ad ID’ing those immature birds!

  3. September 21, 2014 6:39 am

    It’s sort of like a green Where’s Waldo! : )

  4. September 21, 2014 1:52 pm

    Great photos! 🙂 I love the name ‘Nashville Warbler’ – Nashville seems just right for them.

    I’m not too good with UK warblers either. I’ve tried recording their songs, and then spent ages listening to them and listening to songs on bird sites, trying to identify them – I think I heard my first ever Garden Warbler this spring, but I’m still not sure!

    All good fun though – maybe I’ll just call them all Waldo too.

  5. September 21, 2014 5:13 pm

    Well you’re still very impressive. With fall and more unusual birds stopping by our feeders, here it’s usually a vague, “Oh there’s a new one…”

  6. September 21, 2014 6:39 pm

    As I have never knowingly seen a warbler all this is a mystery to me but I like your persistence in the pursuit of knowledge.

    • September 22, 2014 9:34 am

      I’m sorry to hear this, Tootlepedal- then again, far from the sea here in central Ohio, warblers are sort of a landlubber’s replacement for all of the ocean birds that one can see along the seacoast. There’s plenty of birds to see wherever one is!

  7. September 22, 2014 4:27 pm

    Warblers are a mystery to me, although I hear them often. Thanks for the observation tips! Love the photo of the bird peeking from within the berry bush! Jane

  8. keekeepod permalink
    September 22, 2014 8:56 pm

    A few small drab green birds are darting in and out of dense golden rods, asters and other flowering “weeds” in my backyard, where the feral cats are confined. Their beaks don’t seem to be pointy enough and rear ends not “perky” enough to be warblers. I thought they were finches. Yet, they seem to be hunting insects, lots and lots of bees, wasps, flies, and so on. Usually the only way for me to id an unfamiliar bird is for my feral cat to bring it to me. Therefore, I’d rather these birds remain a mystery.

    Only one bird casualty so far this year most likely because the ferals are confined at least 22 hours a day. I’m concerned now that birds are hanging out inside the confinement.

    • September 22, 2014 9:09 pm

      I wonder if those birds you describe are Kinglets? Some warblers look greenish too. It’s tough identifying things this time of year- spring is a different story entirely!

      Edit: one other possibility- Goldfinches, especially immature ones born recently, in their winter plumage.

      • keekeepod permalink
        September 22, 2014 9:38 pm

        I would have said female gold finches, except it seems odd to see only females, and hunting insects! Thanks for the hint. Hope I don’t find out the “usual way.”

  9. October 6, 2014 1:31 am

    I’m actually looking forward to having few leaves so I can see who’s been hiding up there!

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