Cerulean warbler
Credit: WikimediaCommons

For many bird watchers, this is the best time of year to reconnect with birds and the outdoors. For those with excellent vision (or a nice set of binoculars) and/or hearing, a good field guide, and a strong neck, spring is a great time to look and listen for the 50 kinds of warblers regularly occurring in the United States.

The energetic, often brightly-colored, sparrow-sized birds can be difficult to spot.  Most male warblers become very vocal as they get closer to their final summer homes.  While it can be challenging to spot a rapidly-moving warbler, with some practice it’s possible to locate and identify many species by their distinct songs and calls. In thick forest habitats where vision is limited, identification by sound is sometimes the only way to identify birds.

Common yellowthroat
Credit: George Gentry/USFWS

Most warblers are habitat specialists; knowing their habits helps birders target where to search and which species are more likely to be found in a given setting.  A few species are ground residents, foraging and nesting from ground level to about 15 feet high. Others spend the majority of their time in shrubs and trees at the 10 – 40’ range, and some are tall treetop dwellers, causing many a case of “warbler-neck” when birders stare for hours almost straight up, trying to get a satisfying look at a five-inch bird at the top of a 70’ tree.

Black-throated blue warbler and chicks
Credit: Steve Maslowski/USFWS

Yellow, Golden, Orange, Black…
Warblers have a remarkable variety of colors, behaviors, calls and names, many of which describe their appearance, preferred habitat, or place of residence or discovery:  yellow warbler, black-and-white warbler, orange-crowned warbler, black-throated blue warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, golden-cheeked warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, common yellowthroat, red-faced warbler, and many others.  The aptly-named worm-eating warbler feeds extensively on worm-like caterpillars, and ovenbirds construct nests on the ground that resemble Dutch ovens.  Pine warblers really do favor pine trees, but prairie warblers are not true prairie residents – some stick to mangrove habitats while most prefer overgrown fields that have large shrubs and small trees.  As for bird names with location connections, consider the Kentucky, Cape May, Nashville, Connecticut, and Canada warblers.

If you live in the southeast, northeast or midwest (east of the Mississippi River), migrating or nesting warblers are easy to see in the right habitats and at the right times. There are fewer species in the central and western regions of the country, but some locations have good numbers passing through during the spring.  To avoid going on a wild goose chase – unless you’re looking for wild geese – check the Web site for a specific national wildlife refuge before visiting to consider bird-watching reports, recommendations and upcoming bird programs.

Golden-cheeked warbler
Credit: Credit: Steve Maslowski

Recommended National Wildlife Refuges for warbler watching:

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Ridgefield, WA

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges (CA/OR border)

Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, Parker, AZ

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Anahuac, TX

Waubay National Wildlife Refuge, Waubay, SD

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Oak Harbor, OH

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Decatur, AL

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Davis, WV

Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Basking Ridge, NJ

Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, Swanton, VT

To see a Flickr photo gallery of warblers and other birds on refuges, click here.

To hear bird calls, check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds guide.



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