Safety in numbers

The warblers are back.  They must have flown in with the last storm front this week and are just as busy as they were last spring flitting about the trees and shrubs in search of food.  Since they don’t sing or chirp very much on their way south, I discovered the best way to find them was to listen for Chickadees making the “dee-dee” call.  Every time I found/heard a flock of chickadees, I saw a variety of warblers with them.

black capped chickadee stashing a seed

This chickadee found a sunflower seed somewhere and is trying to find a good place to stash it.  “Dee-dee-dee” calls vary in length; the greater the number of “dees”, the greater the threat.  High-pitched “see” notes indicate the presence of a predator.

It seems the warblers like to hang out with the local insectivores, forming mixed flocks of several species all cruising through the shrubbery and leaves together. Chickadee calls impart a wealth of information about the environment, especially the presence of potential threats, so perhaps migrating warblers rely on the local chickadee experts for information.  In addition, more eyes to watch for predators equals greater safety.

american redstart female or juvenile

An American Redstart female or juvenile bird sports flashy yellow rather than the scarlet-orange patches in the wings and tail of the male.

american redstart flashing its tail

The Redstart signature behavior of flashing its colorful tail feathers makes the ID for this bird pretty easy.

chestnut-sided warbler-fall plumage

That bright yellow cap gives this bird’s identity away — only one warbler has a golden cap like this one: a Chesnut-sided Warbler.

chestnut-sided warbler-fall plumage

No chestnut sides or black facial markings until molting season next spring.  The white eye ring is typical of juvenile Chestnut-sided Warblers.

Warblers are notoriously difficult to identify in the fall, mostly because they are not singing and the typical bright and distinctive male plumage may be dulled, looking more like the less distinctive female of that species.  Adding juvenile birds into the mix further confuses us.  So here’s a bird ID quiz.

Below are two photos of what I thought was two individuals of the same species.

magnolia warbler-juvenile

Gray head, yellow belly and throat, white eye-ring. Should be easy to ID, right?

nashville warbler

Here it is again — gray head, yellow throat and belly, white eye-ring.  Disregard that pale branch obscuring part of the bird’s belly.  It’s really all yellow.  Is the same species as the one in the previous photo?

What do you think?  One species or two?  List your reasons in the comments, and I’ll give you the answer tomorrow.

12 thoughts on “Safety in numbers

  1. Don’t know my warblers as well as I should, but I’m pretty sure these are not the same species. I’m basing that on the fact that the top bird as white wing-bars, and the bottom one doesn’t. Without grabbing my field guide and cheating, I’m guessing the top one is a yellow-rumped warbler, but I’d need that book to even guess at the bottom bird. I’m really RUSTY, having not been out looking for any warblers that don’t show up in my back yard in several years. (The bottom bird does sort of look like a kinglet to me, but that’s an even wilder guess than the first one.) Tell, tell. I love how much I learn from your posts.

  2. Hello, Sue:
    I’d vote for these being two separate species: the second one is a Nashville warbler, and I’m thinking the bird in the first of the two photos is an immature female magnolia warbler, based on its wingbars, gray head, yellow front with a hint of striping and the thin eye ring.
    Fun test!
    Val

    • OOoh, I like your guesses, Val. I’m sooo rusty on warblers, especially those we only have here during migration. The ones that hang around longer, I know pretty well, and once upon a time, I knew more migrants, too. Yeah, not the same bird, but now that you mention the other two, I’m really interested to see if you’re right. I’ve never seen a Nashville, and only seen one magnolia in my life, so I’m really jealous, Sue, if that’s what these are.

      • PS, I do know redstarts. You can’t really miss ’em. But we call them orangestarts, because, hello…they don’t have any red on ’em that I can see. Male nor females. 🙂

    • Wow, Val, you have nailed it! Nice work. I saw that faint black striping on the first of the mystery species, and realized it looked more Magnolia than Nashville. White wing bars and gray instead of yellow on the tail also differentiate the two. I agree that the Magnolia looks like a juvenile bird. Since I saw so many young birds, I am wondering whether the juvenile warblers migrate before the adults, or whether there are just more of them than the adults in the migratory population? Do you know?

  3. When I go on bird walks with my club they remind us to “follow the chickadees” so I’ve been doing that for a while.

    I’m terrible with warblers in the field, and add the juveniles in the mix and I can’t ID anything other than a yellow-rumped … maybe. I thought the first mystery bird looked a bit Magnolia-ish and should have known the second one. I even take the warbler refresher course my bird club offers every year, and still they elude me. Nice shots of the redstart … they are so pretty with that fan tail.

    • I didn’t learn about following the chickadees until just recently, but that should have been obvious. You have better information from your fellow birds than I do. I have never tried very hard to ID the warblers in the fall using binoculars; yes, they all look alike, but if I can get close enough to photograph them, there’s a chance to ID them.

  4. I have to admit, Sue, that I preemptively surrender when it comes to warblers. I have enough trouble even seeing them with the leaves still on the trees. It is definitely cool to learn that they mix in with the local chickadees (and your photos of these little beauties are wonderful).

    • Tell you what Mike — you take me exploring for dragonflies and I will take you on a warbler walk. I’m no expert by any means, but getting better each spring and fall. Knowing where to find them is the biggest problem, I think.

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