Recognizing warblers by sight and sound

Over the next two weeks, new warbler species will arrive almost daily. It makes experienced birders giddy with anticipation, but many beginners feel inadequate. “With more than 35 species of warblers possible in the east, how can I learn them all?” they ask.

The solution is to concentrate on the most common and widespread species, that is, those most likely to be encountered.

So abandon your fears and head into warbler habitat. Old fields, forest edges and woods are the best places to see and hear spring warblers. Here are 10 common warblers that I’ve always found relatively easy to recognize by both sight and sound:

The most recognizable warbler song I hear each spring — “bee-buzz!” — comes from the blue-winged warbler. I usually can 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 yellow warbler nests 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.”

At more than 7 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.

You’ll find prairie warblers in pastures and abandoned fields with scattered trees. I can always count on a pair in my hay field. Olive above and yellow below, the prairie warbler has black streaks on its sides, a black eyeline and a black mustache. Its song is a series of high-pitched “zee” notes that climb the musical register.

The black-and-white warbler is an arboreal acrobat common in most deciduous woods. Look for it in tree tops spiraling around branches. At a glance, its behavior suggests 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,” sometimes described as the sound of a squeaky wheel.

Another tree-top warbler is the northern parula. Though blue-gray above, parulas usually are 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.

The black-throated green warbler can be abundant in the coniferous forests of central West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan. Look for a bright-yellow face, black throat and two white wing bars. Its song goes, “zee, zee, zee, zoe, zee,” with the “zoe” note lower than the others.

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 insectlike trill.

The ovenbird, named for the ovenlike nest it builds on the forest floor, is another drab warbler, though it does have an orange crown bordered by two black stripes. Its breast is heavily streaked and may suggest 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.

Clip this column and slip it into the warbler section of your favorite field guide to master the warblers you’re most likely to encounter this spring.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by e-mail via my Web site,

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