How to identify warblers this season


To paraphrase a popular Christmas song, May is “the most wonderful time of the year!”

New warblers have been arriving almost daily. This onslaught of migrants can intimidate less experienced birders, but the most common warblers are fairly easy to identify.

To see warblers, concentrate on their habitat — old fields, forest edges, woods, and country roads. If there’s a stream nearby, that’s even better.

Here are ten common warblers that are relatively easy to recognize by both sight and sound. The most recognizable warbler song I hear each spring — “bee-buzz!” — comes from the blue-winged warbler.

I can usually hear at least one male from my back porch. This warbler’s wings are dull blue-gray with two white wing bars. The face, throat, chest and belly are yellow, the back is olive, and a black line runs through the eye.

Coast to coast

Yellow warblers nest from coast to coast and from Alaska to Mexico, often in wet habitats. Rusty streaks mark the male’s bright yellow chest. Its song can be put into words — “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.”

The range of the common yellowthroat is almost as extensive as the yellow warbler’s. Look for it in swamps, cattail marshes, and wet thickets. The male is easily recognized by its bright yellow throat and chest and its broad black mask.

The song consists of loud double or triple noted phrases: “witchy, witchy” or “witchity, witchity.” Though common yellowthroats and yellow-throated warblers both have bright yellow throats, don’t let the similar names confuse you.

Singing from sycamores

The yellow-throated warbler lacks the yellowthroat’s black mask and is usually found in the treetops. Look for its plain gray back, white wing bars, black cheeks, and bright yellow chin, throat and breast as it sings from the tops of sycamores along wooded streams.

The song is a series of descending high-pitched whistles. Black-and-white warblers are arboreal acrobats found in most deciduous woods. Look for them in treetops spiraling around outstretched branches.

At a glance, its behavior suggests a nuthatch, but its black and white striped plumage is distinctive. Its voice is a high-pitched, “we-see, we-see, we-see,” sometimes described as the sound made by a squeaky wheel.

Another active treetop warbler, especially along wooded waterways, is the northern parula. Though blue-gray above, parulas are usually seen from below. Look for two white wing bars, an incomplete eye-ring, and a yellow throat and chest broken by a dark band. Its song is a buzzy, rising trill that ends with a forceful exclamatory note.

Ovenbirds, named for the oven-like nest they build on the forest floor, are drab warblers, though they do have an orange crown bordered by two black stripes. The breast is heavily streaked and suggests a small thrush at first glance.

Ovenbirds usually stay close to the ground, and their loud song is hard to miss.

“Teacher-er! Teach-er! TEACH-er!” gets louder with each repetition.

Chestnut-sided warblers can be common in overgrown fields and forest edges. Olive with black streaks above, chestnut-sided warblers are white below and have a bright yellow crown, a black eye stripe, and distinctive chestnut sides.

Its song, which it sings from elevated perches, is often described as “Please, please, pleased to MEET-cha.”

Brightly colored

American redstarts forage actively among the treetops of deciduous forests. At first, a redstart’s black and orange markings suggest a miniature Baltimore oriole. Male redstart’s distinguishing features are bright orange patches on the wings, tail, and sides of the breast.

As they flit about the canopy, these flashes of orange are eye-catching. Its song is a series of notes with the final note a bit higher pitched. Hooded warblers skulk in dense thickets and undergrowth and are often difficult to see.

Look for a black hood and throat over a bright yellow face. A plain olive back and wings and bright yellow belly make identification relatively easy. The hooded warbler song is a loud, “weeta, weeta, wee-tee-o.”

Over the next month, spend some quality time in warbler habitat and challenge yourself to see and identify ten species of warblers.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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