Finding Fall Warblers by Drew Weber
Finding warblers in the fall can be much trickier than finding them in the spring. Males are singing less often because they are no longer attempting to attract mates, and most of their vocalizations are difficult-to-identify chips. These chips are actually the best thing to clue in on, as they can often lead you to a feeding flock of warblers. The feeding flocks can vary in size, but when you locate one warbler there is a good chance that several others are nearby.
The first thing to do is find some suitable habitat. Fall warblers often concentrate along the edges of woods where early morning sun is hitting the trees and warming the air, increasing the activity of insects which the warblers are seeking out. Walk along the forest edge listening carefully for chips. In addition to listening for warbler chips, pay attention to any chickadees. Warblers will often forage in a loose flock with chickadees. Since the birds aren’t vocalizing as much, take your time as you scan the area and walk slowly. Also don’t be afraid to backtrack as a small flock can emerge from the woods and forage along the edge with no warning after you passed it.
Another habitat type you should check out for fall warblers are fields of dense goldenrod. Tennessee, Orange-crowned and Wilson’s Warblers can all be found in this type of habitat as they forage in the goldenrod. Successional habitat with a mix of smaller trees and shrubs can also provide ideal habitat for finding warbler feeding flocks.
Looking for fall warblers can be very rewarding because of the patience it can require. It is very exciting to find a mixed flock of 6 different species of warblers and get great looks at them as they forage at eye level, rather than in the treetops as is typical in the sling. And getting a good look is important.
Fall warblers get a bad rap for being hard to identify. They also have the reputation of being less colorful than the spring warblers. There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, spring migration is a quick and hurried affair as birds race northward to stake out territorial claims to some prime breeding habitat. In all the rush, we generally only manage to see the birds that are singing…males with their distinctive bright plumage.
In the fall, migration is a much more leisurely event. The warblers take their time and stop for days at a time to feed and replenish the reserves they require for their long flights. This gives birders a chance to see females as well as males, adding an additional plumage variation that has to be identified. Also, each successful pair of birds raised maybe 2-5 young, meaning there are now more immature birds than adults. The plumage of immature males and females are often different as well. Generally young males look similar to adult females, while immature females are even drabber colored.
This means that in the fall, a birder often needs to be familiar with at least three, and sometimes four different plumages of a bird to be able to correctly identify each warbler they see. Adult males are still mostly in their bright breeding plumage, young males and adult females are drabber and sometimes hard to differentiate, and young females are the drabbest.
If you get a chance to study females and immatures closely, you will discover although their colors aren’t as gaudy as the spring males, there is still a lot of color on many of the young warblers. Young Chestnut-sided Warblers, for example, have a beautiful lime-green back.
So, are fall warblers really harder to identify? The answer is yes, but a species often shares specific characteristics between all the different plumage. Learn these shared characteristics and identification will be much easier. Spend some time getting to know the fall warblers, and I am sure you will enjoy them as much as I do.