Yellow warbler: an all-time favorite

I’ve always loved Yellow Warblers from the first time I saw (and heard) one. They are one of the more ubiquitous warblers in New England from the time they arrive in early May until the time they leave in the fall. In between, they raise families throughout our region and delight birders with their bright plumage and cheerful song (sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet).

For the Birds: May is prime time

Where to begin? May is a firestorm of birding activity in New England.

I’ll recap a few of my recent highlights and then expand, where necessary or otherwise interesting, in subsequent columns.

A warbler by any other name: Many warblers actually have the name warbler in their name. Yellow warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, worm-eating warbler and so on. Many, however, don’t have warbler in their name. Common yellowthroat, American redstart to name a few.

A few warblers don’t have warbler in their name and look like they belong in the thrush family. The ovenbird and waterthrushes (northern and Louisiana) could easily pass for thrushes with their brown bodies and spotted chests. Heck, the waterthrushes even have thrush in their name. But they are all, indeed, warblers.

That warrants a column unto itself. I’ll dig into that in the coming weeks.

Dueling grosbeaks: I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak singing in a tree during the tail end of one of my recent walks. I paused enough to find its perch. As soon as I spotted the beautiful bird, another male rose-breasted grosbeak dive-bombed the original bird, and they started chasing each other through the woods. The action caught the eye of a third male grosbeak and that one joined in the chase as well. That was a first for me. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, with their white wing bars, are just as impressive-looking in flight as they are perched.

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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.

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A few birds from a late-April morning walk: field sparrow, eastern towhee, bald eagle

Photo by Chris Bosak – Field sparrow, April 2022.

Not as many migrants as I expected, but a good walk nonetheless at Huntington State Park in Redding, Conn. I heard only one warbler (black-and-white), but I have heard and seen dozens of eastern towhees over the last two days. It’s (arguably) the best time of year to be out there. No excuses! (I’m talking to myself too). The bald eagle flyover was a bit of a surprise, hence the lousy photo.

Photo by Chris Bosak – Eastern towhee, April 2022
Photo by Chris Bosak – Bald eagle, April 2022
Photo by Chris Bosak – field sparrow, April 2022.

For the Birds: Just a little more patience

Photo by Chris Bosak – A yellow-rumped warbler perches on a branch in New England, spring 2022.

It was a classic early spring walk.

Expectations were high to see a lot of migrants, but those expectations did not match the calendar. Mid-April can be a tough time for birdwatchers. We know the migrants are coming any day, and we have waited so long that the anticipation gets the better of our waning patience. It’s like the feeling children get on December 22 and 23. The decorations and tree have been up for weeks already, but it’s still not time to celebrate.

This is not to say it wasn’t a fruitful walk. I saw a handful of migrants including my first warblers of the season. But instead of dozens of species and 100s of individual birds, as we will get in a few weeks, it was more like a few species and about a dozen individuals.

It was a good warm-up to the upcoming peak of spring migration. Let’s put it that way.

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Palm warblers uncropped

Sometimes I’ll crop photos to delete extraneous background “clutter” or just to highlight the bird more. This time, I decided to run the photos as is (as are?). The palm warbler was a fair distance away, but I kind of like the “clutter” in these photos. (I did burn the edges of the photos in Photoshop to make the bird stand out a bit more.)

For the Birds: Patience pays off again

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow-rumped warbler eats poison ivy berries in New England, fall 2021.

Any birdwatcher knows that patience and faith are perhaps the two most important components to a successful bird walk.

I started a recent walk with high hopes, as I always do, but as the morning went on and no birds were to be found, I started to lose hope of seeing anything. To compound matters, the field at the park had recently been mowed for the first time of the year, making bird encounters even less likely.

It still would have been a pleasant walk because the autumn morning chill had given way to a beautiful and warm sunny day. But with fall migration in full swing, I was disappointed in the birding results.

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Palm warblers out in force

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler stands on a stone wall in New England, October 2021.

Three species dominated the count total on my morning bird walk today. White-throated sparrows were plentiful and it was great to hear their song again. Yellow-rumped warblers were plentiful, as they often are this time of year. Palm warblers were numerous as well and a flock of five kept me company near a stone wall at Huntington State Park. The fall warbler migration is bittersweet. It’s great to see them, of course, but the crisp air reminds me they will be gone soon and a long winter looms. At least winter is good for birdwatching too.

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler stands on a stone wall in New England, October 2021.

A few more yellowthroat photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.

Common yellowthroats are one of most familiar warblers we see in New England. While we are seeing many warblers pass through this time of year on their way south, yellowthroats remain one of the more common sightings. The male (pictured above) is easy to recognize with his black mask, but the female is a little more tricky, particularly in the fall when warblers are notoriously difficult to ID. Here are a few more shots to distinguish the female yellowthroat from other warblers passing through. Click here for a recent For the Birds column on yellowthroats.

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For the Birds: Birding by ear, for starters

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck's and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck’s and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.

Any walk through deciduous woods when the leaves are out drives home the importance of knowing what birds sound like. It can be a lesson in futility to try to find a tiny warbler at the top of a giant oak tree covered in leaves. The exercise can lead to frustration and a condition known as “warbler neck.”

My birding-by-ear skills are average at best, and I was reminded of this during a recent walk through the woods under a thick canopy. I heard several warblers and other birds, and, while I saw only a few, I was able to recognize the songs of several others. There were many birds, however, I could not find through my binoculars nor recognize by their songs or calls. As I mentioned before, it can be frustrating, but I have reached an age where I can let go of the frustration quickly and not dwell on the bird that got away. In years past, I would often hold onto the frustration long after the walk, which, after all, is supposed to be enjoyable.

Birds don’t always look exactly like they do in a field guide, whether the images are photos or illustrations. There are different plumages depending on time of year, age, sex and other factors. There is also slight variation among individuals of a species. Not every male robin looks exactly the same.

That said, birds don’t always sound exactly like they are supposed to either. A bird’s song is only one of the sounds they make and even their songs can vary greatly. Cardinals, for instance, have distinctive high-pitched call notes. They also have a distinctive song, but there are several versions of the song. The cardinal in your forsythia may have a song that is greatly different from the cardinal across the street. All of the songs are loud, clear and beautiful, but very different. Don’t get stuck thinking that the cardinal song you hear every day is the only one cardinals have. Many other birds are the same way as well.

My advice if you are just starting to learn bird sounds is to learn the common and obvious ones really well. Study what the robin sounds like. Their typical song is often translated to “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.” But there is much variation in the song, and they have several calls as well, such as the “tut, tut, tut,” call.

Robins are very common in New England, so if you learn the sounds of the robin, you can save yourself much frustration on your walks by not getting hung up on a bird you will likely come across several times.

Get to know the various calls and songs of blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. You will hear those often throughout the year, and you can eliminate other birds in the spring when you hear those sounds during a song-filled spring morning.

Warblers and other migrants are a different story. We do not hear them year-round, but rather for only a few weeks out of the year. That is a short window to try to learn those songs in the field. Birding Internet sites and phone apps are filled with recordings of bird songs and calls. I would encourage you to learn a few warbler songs each year so as to not try to pack too much information in your head and end up not remembering anything. Learn the yellow warbler and common yellowthroat, for instance, as those are commonly heard in the spring and summer throughout New England.

Warblers are difficult to learn because there are so many of them and many of their songs are similar to each other’s. But, as I said, learn a few a year and within a couple of years you will be picking out many of the songs you hear in the woods in April and May. And if you just can’t pick it up, don’t fret or stress. Study a little more, and get it next time.