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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winter Warblers

These warblers were all seen this winter within walking distance of Union Bay.

They are each a different type of warbler. Can you identify them?

In the winter these birds are far more common in Mexico or Florida rather than near Union Bay. However in warmer weather they are more likely to feed on insects in flight. As a result they are often higher in the trees, darting out from the foliage and more difficult to see.
The ones that choose to winter near Union Bay are more likely to be down near the ground looking for berries or for out-of-season insects that appear on a warm winter day. This can actually make them easier to spot and photograph in the winter.

This time of year these bird's colors are more subtle and muted than in summer. The bird books tend to focus on the most colorful, springtime colors of the birds, but there are still clear distinctions between the markings of these three birds. If you do not know the names of these birds you might enjoy trying to identify them using The Cornell Lab of Ornithology online or by taking a look in a bird book.

In either case you will quickly notice there are many different types of warblers that reside in North America. Looking at 50 different types of warbler pictures can be intimidating. However, you can reduce the options fairly quickly by limiting yourself to warblers that have a geographic distribution that includes Union Bay. 

That brings the list down to:

  • Orange-Crowned Warbler
  • Yellow-Rumped Warbler
  • Black-Throated Gray Warbler
  • Townsend's Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Wilson's Warbler
To be fair only two of the three warblers in our pictures are on this list.  The third bird is vacationing out of its normal geographic area. If you want to identify these birds without any further help you should stop reading at this point.

Of the six birds listed above only two show winter ranges near Puget Sound. They are the Yellow-Rumped and the Townsend's Warblers. If you happened to read the Solstice Surprises post of December 21st you might remember that the Palm Warbler was pictured. This is our third warbler that does not normally reside around Union Bay.

By the way in that post I also mentioned seeing river otters in Union Bay for the first time. Last week I happened to be near the same location, e.g. the bridge between Foster and Marsh Island, when two Canada Geese suddenly lifted off, squawking loudly. I looked to see what startled them and there was a river otter in almost exactly the same place where I saw the otters in December. If you happen to spot a "beaver" in that area you might want to do a double-check.

 So we now know our three warblers are a:

  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-Rumped Warbler
  • Townsend's Warbler

but which is which?

It turns out that only the Townsend's Warbler has a dark ear patch bordered in yellow. 

Ironically, the Palm Warbler is yellow under its tail and the Yellow-Rumped Warbler is white under the tail. So in order our birds are:

  • Townsend's Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Apparently the yellow that gives a Yellow-Rumped Warbler its name is this small yellow spot above the tail and between the wings.

Hopefully, this post has helped to make warbler identification a bit easier. However the warblers have additional tricks up their proverbially sleeves. It turns out that among Yellow-Rumped Warblers (YRW) there are two different local variations.

Especially during breeding season the male Audubon's version of the YRW has a yellow throat, while the Myrtle version has a white throat. This one seems to have both yellow and white under its throat. So which is this? 

You may have noticed that this is the same photo used in last week's post. It turns out the Evan Houston sent in the following email about this bird.

Hi Larry,

I thought you might be interested to know that the Yellow-rumped Warbler you photographed is very likely to be an intergrade "Audubon's x Myrtle".  I've been meaning to try to confidently identify one in the field for a while now, but have not felt very confident w/o getting photos that I can study.

I asked my more experienced friend, Ryan Merrill, to take a look at your photos in your latest blog post, and here's what he said
"Yeah, I would definitely call that an intergrade.  Clearly yellow in
the throat as in Audubon's, but also the white corners curling up into
the auricular, supercilium, and dark lores/partial auricular as in

Was this one in the "dime lot" pond?  I may have even seen this particular bird on 2-1, and I tried to photograph it, but it was too fast for my skills with my point and shoot.

Seattle, WA

Thank you to Evan and Ryan for pointing out that this YRW's interesting heritage.

Just for fun here are two warblers photos where the bird is a bit more difficult to pick out. Can you now find the and identify the warbler(s)?

Both of these photos are of the same bird shown at the beginning of this post.

Finally, from last week,Twink asked is this bird really a House Finch or could it be a Crossbill? What do you think?

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives it the city!


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