Identifying Those Pesky Warblers!
Includes a downloadable Warbler Identification Infographic and a step-by-step video on how to sketch warblers.
One of the most challenging bird families to identify are the Parulidae; known as wood-warblers or simply warblers. Many, like the Yellow-rumped Warbler flit about high in the canopy for which birders acquire ‘warbler neck’ from straining upwards to view them. Others, like the Swainson’s Warbler, camouflage themselves in drab plumage and forage silently on the ground in the shadows of the forest’s understory. And most have the annoying habit of jumping about as if they drank way too much coffee, so you can rarely get a good look.
Recently, I co-led a birdwatching tour to the gulf coast of Texas. It was during the height of bird migration to points north, which for the birds involves a dangerous journey across the Gulf of Mexico from their wintering grounds in Central and South America. We were treated to a dizzying array of birds, including some 20 species of warblers. So how do we teach folks to identify these challenging birds in the field?
Eye rings, crown stripes, rump patches, oh my!
Identifying warblers, indeed any bird, comes down to knowing some basic facts about the species and then observing it closely. With about 115 species in the Americas alone, this can be a challenge. A few species don’t look very ‘warblerish’, like the Ovenbird, Waterthrush and Yellow-breasted Chat, but for the others you’ll need some additional help.
Color and plumage patterns, voice, behavior, and habitat are the most important characteristics. Armed with the additional knowledge of a species’ geographic range, you will likely be successful. A good field guide is also invaluable (I list my favorites below).
Color patterns may be quite striking, making some species easily recognizable. I will never forget seeing my first Red Warbler on the slopes of the Colima Volcano in Mexico, with its unique white cheek patch against a solid background of fire engine red plumage. Or the Hooded Warbler, with the male’s distinctive warm yellow mask on a black head. But many other warblers are easily confused with their dizzying array of eye rings, crown stripes, streaked breasts and rump patches. It’s enough to drive you crazy! Luckily, during our Texas excursion, we were viewing the birds at the easiest time of year; during their spring migration, when the males are dressed up in their fanciest attire and are singing their unique, species-specific songs.
Voices include call notes and flight notes, as well as the more unique songs sung so melodiously by the males during breeding season. Some folks have a better ear for learning to recognize these songs, but for the rest of us, it takes a lot of time and repetition. Studying audio resources helps a lot too (more on that below).
Behavior can offer clues to identity as well. Notice if the bird’s gait is hopping, walking or shuffling. The Black and White Warbler (whom I affectionately call the “barcode warbler” for obvious reasons), has a distinctive foraging habit similar to a nuthatch, creeping head first or upside down on trunks and branches. Palm Warblers and Waterthrushes habitually pump their tails as if they’re perpetually off balance. And the lovely American Redstart exhibits a flashy behavior that includes rapid tail fanning and wing spreading, another species I’ve had the pleasure of observing in its natural habitat.
Habitat certainly helps to narrow down a species ID. As the Parulidae family name suggests, most wood- warblers are denizens of the forest – but some prefer conifer forests over deciduous woodlands, while others prefer pine plantations, brushy scrublands or riparian zones.
For example, if you happen to visit the Texas Hill Country in the spring as I did a couple years back, you may be lucky enough to observe the Golden-cheeked Warbler, whose breeding habitat is restricted to Ashe Juniper and open oak woodlands; a rare habitat type nowadays, which unfortunately makes this species the rarest and most endangered warbler in all of North America. Within a habitat type, notice the microhabitat that your warbler frequents. Waterthrushes are nearly always observed along the edge of a quiet stream or pond, not high in the canopy like other warblers.
Geographic location can really help narrow down an identification. For instance if you’re in the southwestern U.S. along a desert watercourse in a mesquite-dominated shrubland, the Lucy’s Warbler is a safe bet.
Summary of things to notice when identifying a warbler
Most warblers have a similar body size and shape with a fairly short and slender bill. So your challenge is to notice what is different about them, which mostly comes down to color and behavior.
Coloration and color patterns: Warblers come in two basic varieties; one type is relatively plain brown with some subtle streaking (like ovenbirds and waterthrushes) and the other type is brightly colored and patterned, with varying amounts of yellow, red, blue, white and black (like the Prothonotary Warbler or the Black-throated Blue Warbler). Also look for the following:
- An eye ring, its color, and whether it is complete or broken
- Stripes around eye; either through, above, or below the eye
- Patches of color on the cheeks or rump and their color
- Stripes or streaking on the throat or breast
- Wing bars and their color
- Underparts (since that’s the only view you’ll often get of many species who flit quickly about in the treetops!). Notice the colors and patterns on their breast, belly, sides and undertail coverts.
- Overall size and shape of body and bill
- Primary projection (or the length of the primaries beyond the tips of the secondaries)
- Length of tail, and its length beyond the end of the primaries and beyond the end of the coverts
- Is your warbler foraging in the trees or on the ground?
- Does it fan its tail, spread its wings, bob or ‘wag’ its tail
- What angle does the bird hold its tail in relation to its body?
- Is the bird’s gait hopping, walking or shuffling?
- Character of its voice, the male’s song and the call and flight notes of both sexes
Pleasure without identification
If you’re watching warblers in the autumn, or trying to identify molting males, drab females, nondescript juveniles or (heaven forbid) hybrid individuals, well the going gets a lot tougher.
You know how kids are always asking you the name of something, but as soon as you tell them, they’re on to the next subject? This can happen to birdwatchers as well. As difficult as it may sometimes be to identify a bird, I suggest you find comfort in the pleasure of simply observing an individual without the obsession of pinning a name on it. Take time to enjoy watching a bird’s behavior; what it’s eating, where it’s foraging and interactions with other birds in its habitat. Take notes, take photos, record its voice on your smart phone. Be in the moment with a bird, and you’ll likely learn more about it than if you’d immediately named it and moved down the trail.
Learn your warblers by sketching them
As you may know, I’m a big proponent of learning by sketching. No matter if you tell yourself you can’t draw a straight line or you haven’t doodled since grade school, and regardless of your results on the paper, just the act of trying to sketch a bird while observing it can have a profoundly positive and long term effect on your ability to recognize the bird next time you see it.
Since many warblers have a similar body shape, it’s best to focus on a bird’s plumage color and patterns of masks, lines, eye rings, stripes, streaks and spots, rump and cheek patches. To save you time, I have created a downloadable identification cheat sheet as well as a step-by-step video on sketching warblers below.
Download my Parts of a Bird Cheat Sheet
Many warblers have complex color patterns, especially on their heads. These patterns often follow the feather groups, for example a stripe on the crown or a cheek patch on the auriculars, so it’s a good idea to learn the names and placement of these groups. This is a two-page pdf that includes a blank page for you to color code.
Download my Identifying Warblers in the Field cheat sheet
I have created this handy-dandy info-graphic (left) for you to download. This Identifying Warblers in the Field downloadable pdf has bird templates for you to sketch on, adding field marks you see in the field, with tips on what to look for on birds to help identify them. Print it out, attach it to a clip board, and bring some colored pens or pencils with you next time you’re in the field.
If you need some recommendations on art supplies, see this comprehensive list of my favorite drawing and painting materials.
Step-by-step video on drawing warblers
Watch the 2-minute video below and follow along with a pencil and paper. In the video I mention some anatomical parts, so you might want to download my Parts of a Bird Cheat Sheet.
Identifying Warblers: Resources for learning about North American wood-warblers
- Sibley’s Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley
- The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
- A Field Guide to Warblers of North America by Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett
- Stokes Field Guide to Warblers by Donald and Lillian Stokes
- Tutorial video on warbler identification by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Downloadable ‘cheat sheets’ on warbler identification from The Warbler Guide
- The Warbler Guide App for iPhone and iPads
- Songs of the Warblers of North America (see description below)
Songs of North American Warblers
Learning to confidently identify warblers really comes down to learning their songs and calls. With their skulky behavior and habit of staying high in the treetops, warblers often only reveal their true identities by their voices. Listening to and memorizing them can easily be accomplished nowadays with readily available high quality audio compilations professionally recorded in the field.The Songs of the Warblers of North America is one such resource; available as an mp3 downloadable audio guide with accompanying photographs, it includes 311 recordings covering 57 warbler species. The audio guide can be purchased from the online store of the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Learn more about birds and sketching them
If you liked this article, you may enjoy some of my other bird stories and sketching tutorials
- Quick tips for sketching backyard birds
- A day in the life of a field ornithologist
- Bird sketching tutorial videos, downloads and presentations
- My online course, Sketching Backyard Birds for Beginners
I created this fused glass art piece in memory of a Red Warbler I enjoyed viewing during a trip to the Colima Volcanoes area of Mexico.