As most birders know, identifying fall warblers during migration can be a huge challenge. Gone is the brightly coloured and easily identifiable breeding plumage from the spring. Instead, we have many drab and in some cases very similar looking warblers.
Last fall I learned a lot of identification tricks (mostly from getting it wrong) that I thought were worth sharing. Check out my 5 case studies below to see how I turned my “mystery birds” into correctly identified warblers.
Confusing Fall Warbler #1
I saw this warbler at Britannia Conservation Area in Ottawa on July 23, 2016. This is early for fall warbler migration and I wasn’t in “migration mode” yet when I saw this bird. With my summer birding brain, I quickly narrowed things down to warblers that breed in my area. But this didn’t look like any of those!
- Very streaky breast and flanks
- Eye arcs (at a quick glance it looks like a white eye-ring, but if you look closer, the eye ring is more pronounced at the top and bottom)
- Very faint yellow shoulder patch on the right side. So faint, I missed it!
- Long tail with a black border
This bird is a very young Juvenile Yellow-rumped Warbler. Yellow-rumps don’t breed at Britannia Conservation Area so I wasn’t expecting to see one in July. Secondly, I normally identify Yellow-rumps by their really pronounced white throat which this bird doesn’t have. All the streaks confused me!
Confusing Fall Warbler #2
This bird was seen in Ottawa on August 30th, 2016.
- Very drab individual
- Quite a hefty and heavy bill that’s relatively blunt
- Noticeable unbroken eye-ring
- Yellow undertail coverts (set of feathers under the tail, nicely visible in these pictures)
- The yellow extends into the tail – this one is very important!
- No wing-bars
This bird is a young Yellow Warbler. I think the overall drabness of this bird confused me. I was trying to turn it into something more unusual (hello: Mourning Warbler!).
Confusing Fall Warbler #3
This warbler was seen on August 31st, 2016 on the ground at Britannia Conservation Area in Ottawa. Honestly, when I saw it and started taking pictures I had no idea what species it was!
- Large warbler with a relatively large bill
- Broken eye ring
- Yellow superlorals (line in front of the eye).
- The yellow superlorals + the eye ring make it look like the bird is wearing “spectacles”
- Throat and breast yellow
- Two wing-bars (faint, but you can see them)
- Unstreaked back
When you put this all together you get a Juvenile Pine Warbler!
Confusing Fall Warbler #4
This warbler was seen at Britannia Conservation Area in Ottawa on August 27th, 2016.
- Bold white wing-bars with black in between
- Heavier bird with a relatively short tail
- Yellowy/beige wash with slight rusty colour on its side
- Buffy coloured undertail coverts
- Pale throat
- White eyering with a bit of a black eyeline
We have a Bay-breasted warbler! Often confused with a fall Blackpoll. The buffiness and slight chestnut on the side are what tipped me off.
Confusing Fall Warbler #5
This warbler was seen at Britannia Conservation Area in Ottawa on September 15th, 2016. My mistake was that I made a snap identification decision and then overlooked some trademark clues (which are now really obvious to me). I also only saw the bird from the front so some of the key identifiers weren’t visible.
- Bright yellow throat, chest and belly
- Grey head with a white eye-ring
- Pale grey neckband
- Black streaking on sides (hard to see in these pictures, but on top picture look at bottom left and on bottom picture look at the bottom right)
- Two white wing-bars (not visible)
When you put all these together it is obvious to me that we have a Magnolia Warbler. My mistake was that I focused on the grey head and white eye-ring and jumped right to Nashville Warbler. I completely missed the grey neckband and the streaking on the sides, which weren’t that obvious in a front view.
Identifying Fall Warblers: Lessons Learned
This is what I love about birding – you are constantly learning and each identification “mistake” you make means you’re that much more likely to get it right the next time.
Here are my lessons from last year’s fall migration:
- SLOW DOWN and look at the individual details of a warbler to avoid identification mistakes
- Get a photograph of the bird so you can more easily identify it later
- Make a list of the key identifiers from your photograph and then cross-reference with a guidebook
- Which leads to my next point: A good guidebook is key! I love The Warbler Guide:
- Learn from your social media community and don’t be afraid to ask others for an identification opinion
What are your fall warbler identification tricks? Post in the comments below ↓