Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bulletin #132 - Upper Texas Coast Warbler ID primer (updated 2011)

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood, Texas

Bulletin #132 - Upper Texas Coast Warbler ID primer (updated 2011)

March 16, 2011

(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 most popular places to see these migrants on the upper Texas coast are:
  1.  Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary - south of Freeport
  2.  LaFitte's Cove - Galveston Island
  3. Corps Woods - Galveston Island
  4. High Island 
  5. Sabine Woods - south of Port Arthur
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 provide a warbler ID guide for spring migration on the upper Texas coast.

I have included some juvenile plumages, if I photograhed them during the spring migration here, that may show up during March - May.

The warblers are the favorite of most birders who come to this area from all over North America and the world.

The warblers are 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 bills of the birds. Warbler bills (1st photo) are thin, vireo bills (2nd photo) 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. If the sexes are similar, I will show only 1 photo.

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 has some reddish streaks on the breast, the female (2nd photo) doesn't. It shouldn't be confused with any other. The 1st year male in the third photo, just has a few red streaks in th ebreast.

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 line through the eye.

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 female in the second photo, just has yellow on the breast. She is grayish above.

The next group of 5 birds are yellow bodied with green back and wings and varying degress of black on the head and face.

The first of this group, is the common Hooded Warbler. The male has a full black hood on head and neck, but preserving a yellow face. The female (2nd photo) 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 just has a black cap. The female (2nd photo) lacks the black 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 male has dark markings, the female in the 2nd photo, has grayer marks that don't extend onto the breast.

The next of this group is the Common Yellowthroat. The male (1st photo) has a 'Lone Ranger' black mask across his face. The female (2nd photo) 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 last of this group is the Prairie Warbler.  The male is bright yellow below and olive above. He has 2 black marks on his cheeks and black streaking along the flanks. This bird has got to be quite uncommon on the upper Texas coast in spring, as I have never seen it during spring migration. It is confined to the east Texas woods, so Sabine Woods would be the most likely place to see it in spring.

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 broken white eye-ring. 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 female (2nd photo) is much plainer.

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. The female in the second photo has a less distinct necklace.

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 female in the second photo has a mostly white face.  

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. If you look closely, there is a slight yellow wash on the wings.

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 female in the second photo has gray cheeks rather than black in the male.

The Blackburnian Warbler is black and white with an intense orange throat and face. The female (2nd photo) 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 in the first photo.. The female (2nd photo) is duller. Both are gray on the back. The first winter female in the 3rd photo lacks the reddish cap and has minimal brown on the flanks.

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. As usual, the female in the second has muted coloration. The first winter female plumage in the third photo has a little black on the face but lacks the chestnut sides. The only way to ID this bird is the yellow cap.

The last of this group is the distinctive American Redstart. The male is black with orange patches on the sides of the upper breast, wings and tail. The female (2nd photo) 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 first summer male in the 3rd photo has female type coloration, but is starting to get the black head. They don't completely achieve adult male plumage until August.

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 adult female (no photo) just has a rufous band. The 1st year female (2nd photo) just has a plain yellow breast without and bands.

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. The female in the 2nd photo has much less black on the throat and flanks. The 1st year male in the 3rd photo still has some white in the black throat. The 1st year female in the 4th photo is very pale. The breast and streaks are gray rather than black.

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 (2nd photo) 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 and wing patches. 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 (Hermit, Townsend's, Black-throated Gray, MacGillivray's, Grace's, Virginia, are all on the checklist) are also seen sporadiclly during spring migration but they are extremely rare, as I have not seen a single one in 20 years of birding here.

I hope that you find this warbler guide helpful to you. Get out and enjoy the birds this spring!

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography

David McDonald


photos copyright 2006-2011 David McDonald
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Pat Reynolds said...

Beautifully done. Thanks so much for sharing.

BeaAnn said...

Thank you for the fine warbler ID photos and descriptions. An annual refresher is always appreciated. I save all your updates with wonderful photographs. Last chatted with you at Goose Is. SP when shooting the YF Grassquit. Finally got a few good shots of that special bird.
BeaAnn Kelly

RCA said...

David, This is beautiful and very helpful! Warblers are my nemesis. Now, do you have a suggestion for making them sit still while I am trying to ID them?

Rusty Alderson
Leander, Texas