While tallying species isn't the sole point to my enjoyment of birding, I've observed 19 warbler species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy during the month of August. I cite this number in the interest of fun birding because I occasionally meet birders who dismiss fall migration (especially warbler watching). They're just too difficult to identify, so the objection goes. Recognizing non-breeding warbler plumages can seem daunting when thumbing through a field guide, but this is because the birds are generally shown perched in profile and out of the context of their habitat. There's a wealth of identification knowledge that can't be experienced in two-dimensional illustrations; one must visit the woods and watch the warblers live.
The bird's behavior and/or vocalization, even if only a single call note, can be very helpful in making an accurate identification. Spring is comparatively easy when birds are singing their diagnostic songs, but consider that upper-story warblers, like Blackburnian and Black-throated Green, tend to have higher-pitched call notes, like "tink" or "twip," while those in the understory generally cast a louder "chip" or "smack" sound. (Can you guess why?) Just knowing this much can help eliminate an entire group of warbler candidates. With practice it's possible to identify many warbler species by call note alone.
How the bird moves through vegetation and forages also helps; skulkers still skulk and gregarious warblers, like American Redstarts and Chestnut-sided Warblers, still sally for insects within feet as if you're barely even a passing concern. There's the Palm Warbler's signature bobbing tail and the nuthatch-like foraging style of the Black-and-white Warbler. Even when lighting is poor, there are behavioral cues and impressions that can get you on the right ID track.
Some adult birds still retain their breeding plumage well into August. This month I've seen Black-throated Green, Wilson's, Canada, American Redstarts, and other warblers that looked every bit as gorgeous as they do during spring. Even some basic plumages, while very different from their breeding colors, are downright adorable, like the Chestnut-sided Warbler's beautiful bright green and light gray. The sights, patterns, and sounds experienced during fall migration will even help make you a better birder during spring. There's a lot to learn, but that's precisely the fun of it!
August Warblers at Pheasant Branch:
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Palm Warbler © 2010 Mike McDowell