Audubon Blog: Warbler Spotting


Mission Warbler: Have Family Fun Looking for Warblers in Southwestern Pennsylvania

Contributed by: Jill Squire – The Birding Nurse

Enjoy spring outdoor family time playing I Spy finding Warblers. These tiny yet mighty birds make great opportunities for outdoor sleuths. 

Warblers have enchanting qualities. They flit about, often letting those who want to catch sight of them for a flash before they move. Small creatures of heroic legend, Warblers go to extraordinary lengths for migration. The Warblers you and your family spot have flown in from Mexico, Central America, or SouthAmerica! Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania's (ASWP) locations feature several of the various habitats Warblers enjoy. 

To get your kids excited to look for Warblers, consider turning birdwatching into a live game of I Spy to engage young minds. Rather than a magnifying glass, bring your binoculars. 

ASWP’s Nature Stores have an excellent selection of higher-quality binoculars. For the budget-conscious family, consider buying used binoculars from a thrift store. Another option is to shop around for a pair on sale for about$30; look for a pair with good reviews for clarity and birdwatching. They won't be perfect, but they will serve the purpose.

Where and when to find Warblers

May is the most popular time for migrating Warblers to have layovers or arrive in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Some Warblers, such as the Louisiana Waterthrush, land in late March and early April. Twenty-seven of Warbler species breed in the state, and seven more migrate through. Warblers spend the winter in Mexico, Central America, and South America. They have a long, challenging journey through all kinds of weather to reach our region.

Did you know that rainy weather or a recent rainstorm following wind from the South may bring a motherlode of Warblers to enjoy? So let it rain! Set worry of mud aside, except to consider a walking stick for balance.   

Tree-loving Warblers often sit still in rainy weather to conserve energy. Rain often provides an excellent opportunity to get a good look at Warblers while they are not moving.     

The ground-foraging Warblers will poke about to dig up insects and worms soon after a rain. They love wet dirt. 

On sunny days, mornings and late afternoons are the best times to enjoy looking for many Warblers. For the Warblers staying in Southwestern Pennsylvania for spring and summer, we will affectionately call them Yinzers for this article. We will soon chat about several delightful and entertaining Warblers who nest in our area. 

How to find Warblers

Looking for movement is one of the best ways to start:

·  Warblers are small and dart around. 

·  Keeping your eyes trained on a specific spot, watch for the movement of the greenery or tiny bodies on it. 

·  Scan another area if you don't see any movement after a minute or two. 

·  Once you see movement, use your binoculars to get a closer look. The calls of other birds and ambient noise may drown out the quieter calls of Warblers.

·  They do have distinct calls, trills, and warbles.

·  This helpful video about birding warblers from Cornell University Lab of Ornithology shows how to use your eyes and ears together. Look high and low: in the trees, the brush, the plants in wetlands and around bodies of water, and meadows.

·  The Merlin Bird ID free app has a Sound ID component, which is fascinating to watch in action, to help you pick up Warblers' trills and add to the sleuthing fun.

Remember the reference to I Spy at the beginning of this blog? 

·  You and your family can be on a grand adventure of Special Ops I Spy Warblers – it's all in how you decide to frame the outing.

· Merlin's Sound ID will share what birds
it senses are around you for which to keep your eyes open and binoculars up.

[As shared in the app instructions, Merlin Sound ID is not 100% accurate; but it is a helpful and FUN tool].

· The combination of teaming up, low-tone talking, hand signals, binoculars, and Merlin Sound ID can lend a sense of Mission Detect Warblers to your outing.

Identifying Warblers – for fun

There are a lot of field guides from which to choose to help identify which Warbler you spotted: 

·  Excellent free bird field guide phone apps exist, such as andCornell University's Merlin Bird ID.

·  Several printed field guides which you can buy new or used.

·  If you don't mind spending a bit of extra money, there is a laminated folding Warbler field guide. It is kid-friendly and easier to match birds to pictures, given the quick movements of these little sprites.

·  Here are two fun species to get you started: the brightly colored Yellow Warbler and the Common Yellowthroat. They are two fantastic warblers anyone can find. Their images and recorded calls are in the linked article. 

·  Don’t be intimidated by scientific or alternate bird names. They are only names! You are looking for birds, and looking to have fun finding birds.

·  Warblers' names let you know who you found after you get more familiar with Warblers.

·  When you start, simply enjoy spotting these flying and flitting leprechaun-like birds.

·  The Yellow and Common Yellowthroat Warblers prefer habitats near bodies of water, which you will find at the ASWP locations. 

·  Listen for the Yellow Warbler's sweet-sweet-sweet-sweeter-than-sweet call. 

· They are a bright, cheery yellow.

·  Yellow Warblers flit about in the lower leaves of trees and the brush near water.

·  Witchety-witchety-witchety-wit is the call of the Common Yellowthroat Warbler. 

·  They have olive-colored backs and wings, with bright yellow throats and chests.

·  The male has a black bandit-like mask slashing across his eyes from one side of his head to the other. There is a sharp white stripe above the black. 

·  Yellowthroat Warblers nest in wetlands: cat tail patches, trees along waterways, and other wet places. They are comfortable hanging out near the ground in thick briar patches. 

·  Listen for the calls and look for movement toward the Warbler sound, with or without your binoculars.When your kids spy one (or more!), the thrill of victory may fill them with triumph and enthusiastic calls of, "I see one!"

Locally nesting Warblers

Several delightful Wood Warblers remain in Western Pennsylvania for the spring and summer rather than continuing north. They stay to build nests and raise their young. Let's meet some of the easier-to-spot of these local or yinzer (an affectionate nickname for this article) Warblers:

You have already met the Yellowthroat Warbler

We briefly mentioned the Louisiana Waterthrush earlier. 

·  They construct hidden nests in holes made in banks along running streams. 

·  The Louisiana Waterthrush forages for food by turning over damp leaves along the water or wet woodland floor and flitting out over the water.

·  They have a brown back and wings, a distinctive white line extending over their eyes to the back of their head, and a white chest with brown streaks.

·  You may see them bobbing their back ends up at the water's edge as they search for snails and salamanders to eat. 

Please meet the Worm-eatining Warbler, which does not eat worms. They eat caterpillars and other insects. 

·  This olive-brown Warbler's favorite place is the underbrush, in thickets, vine tangles, and clumps of leaves. 

·  They sound similar to a chipping sparrow, except the tone is richer and less tin-like. 

· Buff feathers cover their chest and head. Black eye and crown stripes break up the monotone colors and add to their camouflage effect. 

Pleased-pleased-pleased-to-meet-you is the cheery call of the Chestnut-sided Warbler

·  They are at home in saplings at the edges of younger forests and woods, in immature saplings.

·  The Chestnut-sided Warblers have a chestnut-colored loop-shaped marking in front of each wing.  

· They sport black wings with small white bars, white cheeks, white chest, and a bright yellow crown atop their black head.

The zebra-like stripes of the Black and White Warbler are unmistakable. 

·  They prefer nesting in the low brush of heavily wooded areas.

·  The Black and White Warbler feeds low in trees, and their methodical movements over the bark of trees resemble that of a Nuthatch.

The migrating Warblers passing through our area are bright and lively

Appearing angry with a black mask that dips with a "V" between their eyes, Yellow-rumped
are a treat to spot.

·  They have a yellow back-side, yellow on their sides, and on their faces. The Audubon Yellow-rumped Warbler has a yellow throat.

·  They prefer various pine trees; they will tolerate leafy trees to find bugs.

Nashville Warblers are colorful with their gray-blue heads and bright yellow bodies.

·  They tend to hop about the end of branches in brush and trees as they forage for food.

The distinctive chest black stripes of the bright yellow Magnolia Warbler make it an interesting migrating Warbler to catch in your sights.

·  They hunt for bugs from the undersides of leaves of brush and trees.

Tennessee Warblers prefer the view from high up, on the spindly ends of the highest
branches of leafy trees, the upper canopy.

·  They have a gray head, an olive-green back, and a light gray chest.

·  Males have brown and olive wings, and females are black and olive.

The black hood around the male's bright yellow face gives the Hooded Warbler its name.

·  Their backs are yellow, and their wings have some gray feathers mixed in.

·  They prefer the tangles of the lower brush on their migratory layovers.

Know when Warblers are coming through.

Cornell University’s BirdCast shows real-time data of actual bird migration for your area and a live migration map

Take a few minutes to check out these websites; the visual information and available data are impressive.

Your mission is to have fun playing I Spy with these fantastic, heroic, spritely creatures.

I would love to hear if this helped you enjoy a day finding Warblers. Please email me at and let me know about your birding adventures!