For the Birds: Warblers return

The warblers are back and delighting, confusing, and frustrating birdwatchers throughout New England.

Warblers are small, usually colorful, passerine (perching) birds that migrate into New England every spring. Many nest here while others continue north to nest in Canada. In the fall, they head to points south such as southern U.S., the Caribbean, Central America or South America. The odd warbler shows up on New England Christmas Bird Counts from time to time, but for the most part, they are gone before the snow starts to fly. 

To me, the quintessential warbler is the yellow warbler. It is small, brightly colored, numerous throughout the region and sings its ubiquitous song (“sweet sweet I’m so sweet”) over and over from the brush. It is all yellow with some rusty streaking on its chest and belly.

Warblers come in all colors, however. Many are mostly yellow and many others have flashes of yellow in their plumage. Some are black and white, and some are mostly brownish. A few are mostly blue. It’s no wonder that the spring migration, highlighted by warblers, is the favorite time of year for most birdwatchers.

In the Americas, we see the New World warblers. There are Old World warblers in Europe and Asia, but they are completely different birds from our warblers. There are close to 120 different types of New World warblers. We get about 40-50 species in New England. Approximately 25 warbler species nest in New Hampshire.

The fall warbler migration is notorious for frustrating birdwatchers as there are many plumage variations to be aware of. Many of the male warblers have molted out of their crisp spring plumage and sport a much more drab outfit. Females often lack the bright colors of the males and many first-year birds have not attained adult plumage. 

But the spring migration can be frustrating as well, particularly when the leaves come out. It can be vexing to hear a bird overhead and not be able to find it. 

That’s when birding-by-ear skills pay dividends. It’s much easier to find something if you know what you’re looking for. Learning the songs of the many warblers takes time, patience and practice. I’ve been birding for many years and I know a few dozen warbler songs. But that leaves a few dozen left to learn. Small steps.

In addition to the many warblers that return in April and May, several other of our favorite migrants return as well. I’ve already seen some rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles (Baltimore and orchard) and thrushes. I’m waiting for my first scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings. 

It’s an exciting time to be a birdwatcher in New England. The time, however, is fleeting, so get out and enjoy it. As always, feel free to let me know what you see out there.

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