Warblers: The Family Jewels


(This 998th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 9, 2010.)


Cape May Warbler

photo by Jim Berry, Director, Roger Tory Peterson Institute


Once when I was a beginning birder I accompanied senior ornithologist Howard Miller on an early morning visit to Highland Park in Rochester. That park is nationally known for its lilacs and thousands throng the park's gardens when the bushes are in full blossom. We were earlier in the season, however, before the flowers had matured, so we were alone on that hillside.


Nevertheless, that morning we found the lilacs festooned with ornaments: tiny, bright jewels strikingly painted with yellow, black, chestnut and even blue, orange and red. Each lilac sported a half dozen or so of those small birds. I'm sure we recorded over a hundred individuals. The birds were busy picking insects from the bushes and paid us little heed. This allowed us wonderful, close-up views.


They were all warblers, truly the jewels of the world of birds. They are members of the family Parulidae. Each year thirty or more species are recorded here during spring and fall migration as most of them pass through on their way to and from the forests of the north. Only a few species remain to nest in the immediate Buffalo area, but others reside in the higher country of the Southern Tier.


Although some warblers appear in late April, May is their month. They don't usually arrive all at once. The precursors are the yellow-rumped warblers that join golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets as shadbushes and orchard trees begin to blossom. Variously marked with grays and browns, the yellow-rumps are best identified by their shoulder, top-knot and rump patches of yellow. By early May substantial flocks of these birds appear and our parklands and even suburban yards ring with their buzzy songs and their "check" call notes.


Among the yellow-rumps are a few palm warblers, chestnut-crowned birds easily picked out by their habit of bobbing their tails. Although these are not as striking as some of their companions, they are my favorites among this family.


One other early species we rarely see. It is the Louisiana water-thrush. These birds return to the higher country of the Southern Tier where they nest in the walls of the gullies formed by spring-fed streams usually near waterfalls.


But now it's mid-May and the other dozens of warbler species arrive. The most common is an all yellow bird, appropriately named the yellow warbler. The breasts of males are also lightly streaked with orange. This species will remain as our common resident but, once they have paired off to nest, they well be less evident. Their loud call, "chip chip chippa chippa chip" resounds through our orchards and early succession fields. Most suburban streets will support at least one nesting pair but you will have to look hard to find them.


The dominant color of the warbler family is yellow, but there are striking exceptions. Two lovely blue birds are found here: the black-throated blue warbler, quite common during migration, and the cerulean warbler, a rarer, in fact endangered, warbler that is most often found locally in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge where it also nests.


And there is one striking mostly black warbler with orange patches on its wings and tail. This is the American redstart.


Not all the warblers sport bright colors from that artist's palette. Two species in particular are simply striped with black and white: these are the black-and-white and blackpoll warblers. Despite their lack of pigment, they are handsome birds.


The mix of species becomes overwhelming to beginners. I recall a young friend trying to record new ones being shown him. He didn't understand one name and asked, "Black-throated grebe?" No, he was told, "Black-throated green."


Now you may need a bird book to differentiate species: the blackburnian warbler with bright orange on its head and throat; the Nashville warbler's white eye-ring; the black mask of the marsh-dwelling common yellow-throat; the black top-knot of the Wilson's warbler; the vest-like markings of the chestnut-sided and bay-breasted warblers; the various necklaces of the Northern parula and the cerulean, magnolia and Canada warblers.


Then you have to learn the songs that separate these species. Birders spend weeks preparing by listening to tapes before these lovely birds arrive to brighten their lives.-- Gerry Rising

Added note: The Roger Tory Peterson Institute 2nd Annual Birding Festival will be held June 10-13 at the Institute. The theme will be "Warblers of the Allegany Plateau". For more information about the festival program and field trips, see the program website.