J. Morris

Those darn fall warblers

Even our 'common' Common Yellowthroat becomes drab and nondescript during the fall and winter.
Even our 'common' Common Yellowthroat becomes drab and nondescript during the fall and winter. Special to the Sun Herald

As July slowly moves into August here along the beautiful gulf coast, the temperatures remain near the boiling point. Many of my readers have commented on how they have never seen it so hot.

Others say it is summer here and it is always hot here during the summer. Regardless of which is correct, many birders are opting to stay indoors with curtains drawn shut in an effort to escape record breaking electric bills.

Good luck with that.

In the spring when our songbirds return from across the water, many are arrayed in breathtaking colors of yellow, blue, gold and green.  The males in particular are attired in courting garments to attract a female as they boldly throw their heads back and offer up a serenade hoping the results are matrimonial.

Our fall birds on the other hand consist of first year males and females along with adults that have changed their tune and their colors entirely.  We have stated several times in this column that nature has no conscience but perhaps in certain cases, it does.

As the seasons change from summer to winter, the interim fall period is a mixture of falling temperatures and falling leaves.  As the foliage turns from a lush and thick wall of green to a mousy brown so to do the colors of our songbirds.

Many are clad in dull shades of green and brown or a mixture of the two.  Colors of the rainbow are replaced with earth tones easily overlooked, especially by predatory birds like our Sharp-shinned Hawk or its larger first cousin, the Coopers Hawk, both of which reside along our coast year round.

Our wood warblers are some of the most challenging birds on our long list of possibilities during fall migration.  While birding is forever and a day supposed to be fun and relaxing, some of these washed out songbirds would make Gandhi grit his tooth. There are however tricks to the trade that can help a great deal in dealing with fall warblers.

The phrase a picture is worth a thousand words holds as true today as it ever has.  The Peterson Field Guide has an excellent section on confusing fall warblers.  While you may not be able to completely confirm your identification, these excellent plates can help you get in the general ball park.  Moreover, species that look a lot alike are grouped together for quick reference in the field.

As always, take notes first. Stay on the bird as long as you can and speak the field marks to yourself.  This will help you remember them as you write them down.  When you have recorded all your information, go to the field guide.

Take my advice, put a bookmark at the fall warbler section of your field guide.  Just as sure as Rasputin needs a bath, you will be coming across birds you need help with. First, check for wing bars.  This will cut your choices in half from the start.

Also, Pete Dunne has an excellent reference book out called The Essential Field Guide Companion to the Birds.  Pete Dunne is one of the country's leading authority on our birds and extremely well respected.  The book is available through The Kindle Store at a fraction of the bookstore price.  In his section on warblers, he covers behavior as well as other key aspects of the bird including the timing of their migration. What did Judy Toups say?  "Learn the whole bird". Behavior genetically passed from one generation to the next can aid in an identification challenge.  Among the wood warblers, some species prefer different feeding locales. For instance, the beautiful Cerulean Warbler along with the fire throated Blackburnian prefer the canopy for feeding purposes.  Others like the Worm-eating or breathtaking Gold-wing are mid-level feeders and are very meticulous about gleaning through, up and around each leaf looking for that next tidbit of nutrition.

This holds true for the Worm-eating Warbler as well.  Others such as the Kentucky Warbler or both the waterthrush species can be found on or near the ground.  Both the Northern and Louisiana Waterthrush can be notoriously hard to identify unless you get really good looks.

Some birders believe that their migrations do not overlap so distinguishing the two is just a matter of when they arrive, particularly in the spring.  Others say this is a load of cow cookies, especially in the fall.

The bottom line is not to be daunted or discouraged.  If you are a beginning birder, take solace in the fact that there are "expert" birders in the field that are probably scratching their heads over the same birds you are. Practice makes perfect, but when it comes to fall warblers, as my dear ol' Dad would say, "let the rough end glide and the slick end slide"!

In other words, just have fun!