World Migratory Bird Day
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
By Amanda Gabryszak
It may be snowing here in Western New York, but migratory birds are still on the move.
Some of these birds include warblers – typically small birds of a variety of colors. They are quick and sometimes difficult to see, but fun to catch a glimpse of when you catch them in the moment. Most travel long-distance routes -- “Flyways” -- to reach their destination. In Western New York, we see warblers that migrate along the “Eastern Flyway”.
Yellow warblers (Setophagia petechia), Common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas), and Ovenbirds (Seiurus aurocapilla) are some of the easier warblers to find in Western New York. Black-throated blue warblers (Setophaga caerulescens), Northern parulas (Setophaga americana), and Cerulean warblers (Setophaga cerulea) pose more of a challenge.
Yellow warblers arrive the earliest in late April; the Cerulean warbler, Ovenbird, Common yellowthroat, and Black-throated blue warbler, and Northern parula arrive by mid-May. The best way to find these birds is to research their preferred habitats as well as to learn their different calls and songs. A pair of binoculars and a field guide will be helpful tools in order to ensure you find the bird you are looking for. “Merlin” birding app through the Cornell Lab is a good option for smartphones. After installing the appropriate “packs” based on your geographic location, users can submit photos to receive assistance in identifying different birds, and utilize the field guide.
I have best luck finding Yellow warblers just walking around the block. They tend to nest in shrubs and small trees, and like eating insects. Given their preferences, they’re pretty easy to find in most neighborhoods once they’ve arrived. However they can also be found in thickets, gardens, and even in swamp habitats. Some Yellow warblers live in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean throughout the year. Others cross the Gulf of Mexico in one trip to breed in the North; they are fairly common throughout most of North America. Female yellow warblers typically have a solid yellow underbelly and breast, while male yellow warblers have brown streaking.
Bird calls tend to be described using mnemonic devices – so ornithologists say the Yellow warbler call sounds something like, “Sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.”
(Male yellow warbler photo/painting by Karen; female yellow warbler photo from Audubon)
Another moderately easy-to-find warbler is the Common yellowthroat. They nest lower to the ground, and prefer marshes and swamps, but also can be found on edge habitat and in fields. It’s not unheard of to spot them in urban spaces, and they have a very distinct call. Ornithologists use a really basic “witchety-witchety” mnemonic as an identifier, but I think the expression, “this is a hold up,” better reflects the rhythm of their call. They have a distinct yellow throat and belly as the name suggests, with a sort of olive-tone to the feathers on their body. Males have a black mask over their face, while the females face-feathers are a lighter brown. They spend their winters in Mexico, Central America, and some in Northern South America, as well as the West Indies and the Bahamas.
(Photo Credit: Gary Robinette/Audubon Photography Awards, Audubon Website)
The last “easy” bird to spot is the ovenbird; these guys like to nest in woods and have a brown-and-white plumage better suited for forest camouflage. They’re small, and somewhat resemble thrushes. They are named for the shape of the nests they make on the ground, and depending on who you ask their call sounds either like a timer going off, or somebody calling “teacher, teacher, teacher.” If you walk quietly through the woods, you may be able to see them scurrying around on the ground. Our ovenbirds likely overwinter in the Caribbean, while ovenbirds that head towards the Central U.S. are believed to overwinter in Mexico and Central America.
(Photo by DaveInman/Flickr, from Audubon)
Next – the trickier warblers to find.
Black-throated-blue warblers are a good place to start. Males have deep blue plumage, black face mask, and a white underbelly. They tend to nest in shrubs and saplings, and are typically found deeper in mixed and deciduous forests. They overwinter in warmer places such as the Caribbean coast of Mexico, the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. They eat insects – including spiders – and tend to forage at the lower levels of trees. They have a drawn-out buzzy call that with a mnemonic and rhythm along the lines of “I am so lazy.” Described as methodical and raising up to 3 broods per summer, black-throated-blues seem anything but that.
(Male black-throated blue warbler photo by Jesse Gordon/Audubon Photography Awards; female black-throated blue warbler photo by Kelly Colgan Azar/Flickr, both from Audubon)
Northern parulas migrate through Western New York, but are considered uncommon. They have an extensive range; they live in the West Indies throughout the winter, and can also be found in Eastern Central America. They then spend much of late winter and early spring in Texas before flying further up north to breed. Parulas are brightly colored in shades of blue and yellow and have some interesting tendencies, such as an ability to hang upside-down on twigs, or on trees like nuthatches. Males are brighter in colour than females. They are found in humid wooded areas, and utilize Usnea, a tree lichen, as a hanging nest site; it is difficult to observe young given the style of the nest which may hang as high as 50’ above the ground. Northern parulas are tricky to find, even for ornithologists; if you have your heart set on seeing the unique parula, it may be worth a road trip to the Adirondacks, where they are considerably more common. They have a buzzy sort of call, with no specific mnemonic.
(Male Northern parula photo by Arni Stinnissen/Audubon Photography Awards, from Audubon; female Northern parula photo by Mary Corporan Dunn/Flickr, from Audubon)
Cerulean warblers are considered somewhat uncommon in Western New York, even during the breeding season. They travel to our region up from the lower Andes, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru, spending their winters in tropical rainforest habitat. Up in the Northern hemisphere, they fly through Appalachia and are typically found in hardwood forests and prefer oak, elm, and maple trees. They nest higher up in tree canopies – typically between 15’ and 90’, and can catch insects on the wing. They are so elusive that ornithologists are still exploring their behavior and learning to better understand their diet and even the age at which Cerulean warbler young leave the nest. Males are a vibrant blue and white color; females are a greyish-blue with some purple-tinted feathers. Their call is sort of buzzy and has a trill to it, with a less agreed upon mnemonic. They are a rare and lucky find; much of their habitat is at risk of destruction, and preservation is particularly important for this species.
(Photos: Male Cerulean warbler, Ray Hennessy/Shutterstock, from Audubon; Female Cerulean warbler, Female Cerulean warbler by Always a birder!/Flickr, from Audubon)