Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bulletin #70 - Upper Texas Coast Warbler ID primer

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood, Texas
March 11, 2009
Hello friends,

(Note - click on the images to see a full size photo)

Spring is fast approaching and with it come the annual bonanza of bird migration. It gives us the chance to see most of the migrants of the eastern 1/2 of North America in our local hotspots and many in our yard.

The spring birds are in the breeding (alternate) plumage and thus most easily identified. As I now have most of them photographed, I thought I would give the beginning birders a primer on the most common birds to be seen.

The warblers are the favorite of most birders to venture out during this time and perhaps the most confusing and difficult for beginners to master. In general, any small bird with some yellow is a warbler until proven otherwise. The main exception to this rule is the vireos and they are often confused. There are also a finch (American Goldfinch)and a member of the cardinal family (Dickcissel). Warblers in general are more active than vireos when feeding in the branches. and look at the bils of the birds. Warbler bills (below left) are thin, vireo bills (below right)are thicker and the upper bill is hooked as shown in the photos below. The finch and cardinal family member are seed eaters and have larger bills to crack the seeds.


So now we know the bird is a warbler, but which one of the more than 30+ species that occur in the spring.

Lets look at the overall coloration of the bird.
First, those that have all or mostly yellow head and body with a yellow or green back.
The is only 1 all yellow warbler without any white. This is the Yellow Warbler. Even the wing bars are yellow. The male (below left) has some reddish streaks on the breast, the female (below right) doesn't. It shouldn't be confused with any other.

The next group of 3 birds have bright yellow bodies with blue-gray wings and need to be differentiated from each other.

The Prothonotary Warbler is bright yellow with greenish back and bluish-gray wings with no wing-bars.

The Blue-winged Warbler is similar, but has 2 wing-bars and a black spot on the face between the eye and bill.

The Pine Warbler has gray wings and tail with white wing-bars, but has a streaked breast. It is a winter resident of the upper Texas coast area and may be seen during spring migration.

The next group of 4 birds are yellow bodied with green back and wings and varying degress of black on the head and face.

First of these is the common Hooded Warbler. The male (below left) has a full black hood on head and neck, but preserving a yellow face. The female (below right) has the outlines of a hood. This species has white tail feathers that flash when they fly. They tend to stay low down in bushes.


The next bird is the Wilson's Warbler. The male (left) just has a black cap. the female lacks the cap.


The Kentucky Warbler is described as a skulker. It tends to forage on the ground. Look for it in dense brush. It has a black sideburns on the face. The sexes are similar.

The last of this group is the Common Yellowthroat. The male (left) has a 'Lone Ranger' black mask across his face. The female lacks the mask. Their habitat is marshes, so a plain warbler with bright yellow below and green above is likely the female of this species in that setting. The voice is described as 'witchety witchety'. They can be seen and heard at Anahuac NWR east of Houston.

The next of the mostly yellow and green birds is the Nashville Warbler. This bird is bright yellow below, greenish above but has a gray head and bright white eye-ring. The throat is yellow. This bird is more common in fall migration, but does show up in the spring on occasion.

The Yellow-breasted Chat is a large bird (7.5") that has formerly been classified as a warbler, but now may be put in a family of its own. However, most field guides still show it with the warblers. It has bright yellow breast, olive back and black lores with white eye-stripe. the sexes are similar.

The Magnolia Warbler has a bright yellow breast with black streaking, black on the face and gray back and wings with large white wing patches. It is unmistakable.

The last of the warblers with bright yellow underparts is the Canada Warbler. This bird is yellow below, all gray above, no wing-bars and bright white eye-ring. It has distinctive black streaks on the breast like a necklace. It is mostly found during fall migration rather than in the spring.

Next is a group of 5 warblers that are mostly or completely black, white and gray. Two of them are only black and white.

The more common of these is the appropriately named Black-and-white Warbler. It has a striped black and white head and face. It climbs up and down the tree trunks like a nuthatch, rather than feeding among the leaves like most other warblers.

The Blackpoll Warbler is an uncommon spring migrant. It is only black and white, but the face is white and the top of the head is all black, not striped like the previous bird.

The Yellow-throated Warbler is all black and white below and gray above with a bright yellow throat. It is an easy ID.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler has a yellow rump that is seen when it flies, but also yellow shoulder patches.

The Blackburnian Warbler is black and white with an intense orange throat and face. This is the male illustrated. the female is similar, but the orange color is muted. I think this is the most beautiful warbler in the USA.

The next group of 3 birds have orange or brown distinctive markings.

The Bay-breasted Warbler has a brown cap, throat and flanks with black face. This is the male. The female just has the brown flanks. He is gray on the back.

The Chestnut-sided Warbler also has the brown flanks, but the cap on the head is yellow and the back is green. The face is mostly white rather than black.

The last of this group is the distinctive American Redstart. The male (below left) is black with orange patches on the sides of the upper breast, wings and tail. the female (below right) is gray with yellow patches in the same locations. These birds fan their tails incessantly while foraging, thus flashing the colored patches on the tail.

The next is a large group of plain and/or predominately brown birds.

The Tennessee Warbler is white below and olive above. The important ID mark is the gray head and white eye-stripe. The only bird it might be confused with is the Red-eyed Vireo which is similar except it has a brown head and white eye-stripe.

The Orange-crowned Warbler is a plain dull olive colored bird. There are no distinguishing marks except for some faint streaking on the breast. It is a common winter resident of the upper Texas coast, but some may be still seen during migration.

The Palm Warbler has a brown back, gray breast with brown streaks on the flank. The important marks are the yellow undertail and rufous top of head.

The Worm-eating Warbler is dull olive above and buffy.gray breast but with a distinctive black and tan striped head. It is an easy ID when the head is visible. No other warbler has this pattern on top of the head. It forages in the branches and especially it explores dead leaves for caterpillars (hence its name).

The Swainson's Warbler is another skulker on the ground where the brown coloration blends in with the leaf litter. It has a rufous top of the head and buffy line over the eye as distinguishing marks.

The Ovenbird walks along the forest floor. It is gray below with dark streaking and olive above. The head is striped with a central orange stripe. The legs are pink. If you see a streaked brown bird on the forest floor with orange on top of the head, it is this bird.

The Northern Waterthrush is very similar to the next bird. It always occurs near water. It has a buffy stripe over the eye, that is rather narrow as it extends down the neck. Because it nests in northern USA and Canada, it tends to migrate through in the latter part of the spring season.

The Louisiana Waterthrush is similar to the bird above, but the eye-stripe is white and is wider as it extends down the neck. Also, the flanks have a buffy coloration. It nests in the southeast USA and thus migrates through earlier in spring migration. it is also always associated with water.

These next 2 species are distinctive, but don't fit into any of the above categories.

The Northern Parula is a gray bird with white breast and yellow throat. It has a green patch on its back that is an important ID mark. The are 2 white wing bars and broken white eye-ring. The male shown here has gray and rufous breast bands. The female lacks these.

The Black-throated Green Warbler is another easy ID. It has a gray belly, green back and top of head with a yellow face. There is a black throat with black streaks extending down the flanks.

Lastly we have 2 species that are blue. Both are rare visitors to the upper Texas coast in spring.

If you have a blue backed warbler with a black throat, it is the Black-throated Blue Warbler. I don't have a photo of this bird yet.

If the blue backed warbler has a white throat, it is a Cerulean Warbler.

The male has white underparts with a black stripe across breast, and blue upperparts with some black streaks on the flanks.

The female Cerulean Warbler has a blue-green top of head and back. This is unique.

So what is left? I don't have photos yet of the Golden-winged Warbler. This is a distinctive bird with a black striped facial pattern and yellow crown. Look at a guide book to familiarize yourself with it.

Otherwise there are but a few very rare birds. These are the Cape May Warbler, and Mourning Warbler. The former is seen occasionally in spring and the latter is seen mostly in the fall migration. I don't yet have photos of them.

A few western USA warblers are also seen sporadiclly, but for the beginner, if you can learn to ID the ones described, you are well on your way to becoming a good birder. Then you can worry about juvenile plumages etc after you have mastered the breeding adult plumages.

I hope that you have found this warbler ID discussion to be of benefit. I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations. I will add photos of the missing birds to the discussion when I get them.

Also, if you found this guide helpful, I would appreciate if you would join or make a donation to one of the following organizations, who help the birds with habitat preservation on the upper Texas coast and help us birders in so many ways. If you are already a member, join another or make a another donation. Thanks!

  1. Houston Audubon Society

  2. Gulf Coast Bird Observatory

  3. Armand Bayou Nature Center

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography

David McDonald
photos copyright 2009 David McDonald

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Kyle said...

Excellent post, David! And from someone who has been looking forward to his first season of spring migration as a serious birder with a little anxiety (I've already rat-tailed the Warbler section of my Peterson guide!), I have to say a hearty, "Thank you!"

I've posted a link to your Warbler ID Primer on my own blog and will be visiting it often over the weeks to come.


Your birding blog is AWESOME. You have so much information to share with others, thank you! As a barely-past-beginner-stages-birder I learn something new on just about every line you write, and the pictures are FABULOUS. Especially that breathtaking main page picture. I am adding your blog as a link on my own nature blog. Please keep the birding info coming!

DDolan said...

Great Job Dave. I am going to link this to my website. I just saw a Hooded Warbler in San Bernard yesterday, so I hope that this is the beginning of the onrush.

Anonymous said...

I popped over from Kyle's blog. You have terrific photos and this is a great post. A lot of these warblers nest up here by me. But you have photos of some I have never seen.