Trout and turkey seasons opened in April, but May is warbler season. No license required, just binoculars and a field guide. When/if I pass through the pearly gates, it will forever be the month of May.
Warblers are small song birds that return in late April and early May. Those that nest in the tree tops are more colorful, while those that nest on or near the ground are drabber. Males of each species sing distinct, recognizable songs. An admirable long-term birding goal is to see all the warblers of the east. Only one of the 38 eastern species, the Connecticut warbler, remains my nemesis.
Though identifying warblers intimidates many beginning birders, a few species are common and easy to find and identify. Here are some tips to ease the angst.
Yellow warblers nest from coast to coast and from Alaska to Mexico, often in wet habitats. Rusty streaks mark the male's bright yellow chest. Its song can be put into words - "Sweet, sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet."
The range of the common yellowthroat is almost as extensive as that of the yellow warbler. Look for it in swamps, marshes and wet thickets. The male is easily recognized by its bright yellow throat and chest and a broad black mask. The song consists of loud double or triple noted phrases - "witchity, witchity, witchity" or "witchy, witchy, witchy."
The most recognizable warbler song I hear each spring - "bee-buzz!" - comes from the blue-winged warbler. I can usually hear three males from my back porch. This warbler's wing is a dull blue-gray with two white wing bars. The face, throat, chest and belly are yellow, the back is olive and a black line runs through the eye.
The ovenbird, named for the oven-like nest it builds on the forest floor, is a drab warbler, though it does have an orange crown bordered by two black stripes. Its breast is heavily streaked and suggests a thrush at first glance. Ovenbirds usually stay close to the ground, and their loud song is hard to miss. "TEACH-er, TEACH-er, TEACH-er!" gets louder as it continues.
Drab is a good one-word description of the worm-eating warbler. Often seen foraging in dense vegetation on wooded hill sides, worm-eaters are brown with a buffy breast and black stripes on a buffy head. Its song is an unremarkable insect-like trill.
A skulker found in wooded swamps and thickets, the hooded warbler wears a black hood over a yellow face. A plain olive back and wings and bright yellow belly make identification relatively easy. The hooded warbler sings loud, "weeta, weeta, wee-tee-o."
The black-and-white warbler is an arboreal acrobat common in most deciduous woods. Look for it in tree tops spiraling around branches, like a nuthatch, but its black and white plumage is distinctive. The stripes run lengthwise and include a striped head pattern. Its voice is a high pitched, "we-see, we-see, we-see," reminiscent of a squeaky wheel.
American redstarts are also active tree top dwellers in deciduous woodlands. Males are black with a white belly. The male redstart's distinguishing features are eye-catching orange patches on the wings and tail.
Another tree top warbler is the northern parula. Though blue-gray above, parulas are usually seen from below. Look for two white wing bars, an incomplete eye-ring, and a yellow throat and chest broken by a dark band. Its song is a buzzy, rising trill that ends with a forceful exclamatory note.
At more than seven inches long, the yellow-breasted chat is the largest warbler. Look for chats in overgrown old fields and forest edges. Note the heavy bill, long tail, bright yellow throat and chest, and white spectacles - a white eye ring that extends to the base of the bill. Chats are the mimics of the warbler world. A chat's voice suggests a mockingbird with a limited repertoire. Listen for hoots, whistles, and honks, sometimes given in flight.
Warblers are nesting and in full song right now. Clip this column, slip it into the warbler section of your favorite field guide, and master 10 "easy" warblers this spring.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.