Feathered Friends: Pace quickens for warbler migration

9:02 am | September 17, 2012

With the slight dip in temperatures, some migrating warblers put themselves on view the evening of Sunday, Sept. 9.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Mark Musselman
A male Black-throated Blue Warbler forages among sun-dappled vegetation beneath the forest
canopy. The male in this species of warbler has an unmistakable blue, black and white plumage, but
the female Black-throated Blue Warbler is a plain brown bird. The only distinguishing mark to her
plumage is a conspicuous white spot on her wing.

I saw seven species of warblers, including Nashville, Pine, Chestnut-sided, Northern Parula, Hooded, Tennessee and American Redstart.

A few other birds included Eastern Phoebe, Turkey Vulture, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwings and Northern Cardinals, including a young cardinal with a dark bill.

The Nashville Warbler — definitely the best bird of the evening — is one of two warblers with tenuous connections to Tennessee. Although named after the city of Nashville, this warbler passes through the state capital only during migration in the spring and fall. The bird got its common name from Alexander Wilson, who first observed this warbler in Nashville in 1811. Wilson was a Scottish-American poet, ornithologist, naturalist and illustrator.

The Nashville Warbler is just as fond of a weedy field as the branches of a tree, so many of my observations of this warbler have taken place near ground level. In fact, the sighting on Sept. 9 took place in two different stands of Goldenrod located near the edge of the yard.

Wilson also named and described the Tennessee Warbler for science. Although named for the Volunteer State, the Tennessee Warbler does not really make its home in the state. Like the Nashville Warbler, the Tennessee Warbler passes through the state only in migration each spring and fall. Wilson, when he found the bird, knew nothing of the bird’s migratory habits.

The Nashville and Tennessee Warblers are two obscure birds of which many Tennesseans probably know very little. That’s a shame, because they are both pretty birds. I’ve had little luck finding these two birds in the spring. Tennessee Warblers, on the other hand, are rather common during the fall migration. The Nashville Warbler is less common.

So far, I’ve have managed to see the Nashville Warbler only a few times at my home. I’ve also observed this warbler in Elizabethton as well as South Carolina.


The very next day, I saw only 3 individual Tennessee Warblers, although I also saw such birds as a Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Song Sparrow, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch and lots of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.


My evening lawn-chair birding improved on Tuesday, Sept. 11, when I found five warbler species — Tennessee, Pine, Hooded, Cape May and American Redstart — in the yard.

Some other good birds included a Common Raven flying over, as well as Gray Catbird, Brown Thrashers, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Goldfinch, Song Sparrow, Blue Jays and Cedar Waxwings.

Also, after being absent for a couple of months, a male House Finch showed up at the feeders for a dinner of sunflower seeds. Plenty of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds remain in residence, but these acrobatic and aggressive little birds are mostly young individuals.


Before leaving for work on Wednesday, Sept. 13, I saw and heard several warblers. Two Cape May Warblers (a brightly-colored male and a drab immature) greeted me in the branches of my Mimosa tree, its top branches being almost level with my front porch.

When I got to my car at the garage, I stopped and scanned for any other birds. Near the cattails and a wet ditch, I found a flock of Song Sparrows. I was about to move on when I noticed one of the “sparrows” was wagging its tail. I focused the binoculars and detected a Northern Waterthrush, of all things, mingling with the dainty Song Sparrows, which were all trying to avoid getting their feet wet on the morning dew by staying in a patch of gravel.

The Northern Waterthrush and its close relative, the Louisiana Waterthrush, can cause some identification confusion.

Both waterthrush species walk rather than hop, and seem to teeter. While the sexes of both species are identical, the differences in appearance in the two species are subtle. However, it’s safe to say that almost all waterthrushes passing through the region in September are of the “Northern” variety.

This particular Northern Waterthrush was slightly early. I usually see these warblers in late September or early October.

Finally, I heard a Hooded Warbler singing (yes, the full song of weet-weet-weet-eo) from the woods behind the house.

That same evening, seated in my lawn chair again, I found only two warblers (Cape May and Pine), but I did observe some rather unusual fly-overs, including a solitary Chimney Swift and a Great Blue Heron. In addition, a female House Finch showed up this evening to join with the male House Finch who visited the feeders last night.

Other birds sightings included the usual Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a Northern Flicker, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a Pileated Woodpecker.


Before I departed for work on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 20, I had some breakfast on the porch and scanned nearby trees for signs of migrating warblers. I added two new “fall” warblers to my list of autumn migrants when I saw a Magnolia Warbler and a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. I also saw several Tennessee Warblers and a Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers represent the most extreme example of sexual dimorphism among all the New World warblers. In simple terms, sexual dimorphism refers to substantially different appearances between the sexes. Males are dark blue with black throats and white underparts. Female, on the other hand, are mostly drab olive-brown in color. Both sexes show a prominent white patch at the base of their primary feathers in their wings.

Another good example of sexual dimorphism, at least among birds, is the flashy male Peafowl, or Peacock, and his much plainer mate.

Black-throated Blue Warblers migrate to Caribbean islands and Central America to spend the winter. During the summer nesting seasons, they can be found on some local mountains, including Roan, Unaka and Holston.

This warbler has a high, buzzy song that consists of a jumble of zee-zee-zeeee notes with an upward inflection that some birders translate as “I’m so lazy!”


To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or 542-4151 or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@ starhq.com. I am also on Facebook.

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