Warblers are Back!

Identifying and Top Destinations
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For bird lovers of all ages and ability levels, the moment of connection—when one of these brilliantly colored birds materializes from a tangle of shrubs or on a high, shadowed tree limb in a cool forest—is always special. Warblers are so tiny and shy and gorgeous, they seem almost a bit unreal. But they're not. And while some warblers are uncommon or difficult to locate, there are several species that most anyone can find. And this is definitely the time to give it a try. During late spring and the first portion of summer, warblers are in their breeding plumage—their boldest, most vivid colors—and males are actively singing to proclaim their territory.

The first step in birding for warblers is to do a little homework. Buy a good bird identification guide and read up on a few species found in the area where you live or plan to visit. There's more to learn than the bird's call and colors. Field guides contain other important cues for making a positive ID, such as where each species likes to perch. The male Townsend's warbler, for example, stakes out the tallest tips of spruce and fir trees across its western United States range, and sings from there in all kinds of weather. Others, like the ovenbird or northern waterthrush, are often encountered on or near the ground. It's much easier to become familiar with the habits of a few species at home before you head out, as there won't be time to flip through a guidebook during the instant the bird is visible.

And then there are the songs. Males are singing fools during nesting season, but all warblers are shy and secretive; you're likely to hear a bird singing and never actually see it, even though the call seems maddeningly close. Warblers seldom remain in one place for long; males at this time of year will sing, then move off and sing again, doing their best to stay hidden. Libraries and bookstores carry tapes or CDs of birdsongs, including those of many warblers. Again, the best idea is to get acquainted with a few songs before going out.

Two warbler species well-suited to beginning birders are the yellow warbler and common yellowthroat. Both species nest across the United States and are abundant. The yellow warbler may be found most anywhere there is shrubbery, gardens, and trees—including backyards, city parks, and other urban greenspaces. It's the only completely yellow bird in the United States. The common yellowthroat is less likely to be found in backyards or urban areas, but any modestly sized park with a cattail or bulrush marsh, or low, damp ground overgrown with shrubs and bushy trees is a good bet.

The tiny male yellowthroat sports a dashing black mask year-round, bordered by a vivid band of bluish-white, and is given to scolding intruders with a barrage of chirps and chattering sounds. One good look through binoculars at this gorgeous little bird in clear morning sunlight, and you'll be a warbler convert—you'll want to see as many of his relatives as possible.

A sampling of natural areas that host woodland warblers:

Cherokee National Forest
Eastern Tennessee

Eastern Tennessee's mixed hardwood forests and pine woodlands support a wealth of migratory songbirds. A drive along the Cherokee's Unaka Mountain Auto Tour takes 3.5 hours without birding stops, so plan for even more time. Warbler species here include the black-throated blue, Canada, black-throated green, Swainson's, Louisiana waterthrush, and magnolia.

More on Cherokee National Forest

Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge

Located in the Detroit Lakes area of north-central Minnesota, Tamarac's marvelous diversity of habitats—from bogs to dense woodlands and shrub swamps. Warblers here range from the uncommon golden-winged to the northern parula, mourning, pine, ovenbird, American redstart, and chestnut-sided. Some 14 other warbler species pass through here during spring migration.

More on Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge

Sauvie Island Wildlife Area

A short hop from downtown Portland, Sauvie Island's riparian woodlands of cottonwood, willow, ash, and shrubs support a nice complement of western warbler species. The orange-crowned, common yellowthroat, yellow, Wilson's, Nashville, MacGillivray's, and black-throated gray warbler have been sighted here; the Townsend's and yellow-breasted chat are listed too, though seldom encountered.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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