By Keith Michael
“They ain’t called confusing fall warblers for nothin.”
I don’t know who I’m quoting here. Maybe myself. But I think the reassuring phrase “Confusing Fall Warblers” can be soundly attributed to Roger Tory Peterson from his game changing 1934 A Field Guide to the Birds. Paged through endlessly, this guide was the staple in my house when I was growing up in Pennsylvania.
You may wonder why I find the CFW sobriquet “reassuring”? Across the room, Millie is giving me her skeptical corgi-eye as if to say that she doesn’t wonder why, frankly doesn’t care, and would rather nap through this one, thank you very much. So much for unconditional love from man’s best friend.
But back to the CFWs. Just placing them in a comprehensive category comforts me with the camaraderie of others who also find identifying fall warblers confusing. I’m not alone. I recall being absorbed as a child by those several pages of Peterson’s yellow and olive illustrations with their black and white accents. By contrast, the gaudy colors and patterns of spring warblers might as well have been fantasy birds. Even though I’m sure warblers passed through our Pennsylvania yard, I never recall seeing them before I took up birding as an adult.
So far this fall I’ve only seen seven of the nearly thirty species of warblers that could pass through the West Village. Let’s look at them. In the spring, the Blackpoll is a tidy black and white bird with a jaunty black cap that could, perhaps, be confused with a Black-and-white Warbler though they have very different dining styles. The Blackpoll also has a helpful tss tss tss “Here I Am” call that I frequently confuse with the brakes of a taxi slowing down at a traffic light. But the one I saw last week had a cryptically striped olive back, no black cap, no call, and foraging on the ground rather than up in the trees. I sent photos to expert neighborhood bird watcher Andrew Rubenfeld for a second opinion because I wasn’t confident naming it on my own.
Another head scratcher had an olive cap and a smudge of rust coloring at the sides of its white front. I only caught glimpses of it as it darted through the Juneberry branches just above eye level. My initial thought was that it was a Chestnut-sided Warbler, but it might have been a Bay-breasted. What would fall migration season be without mysteries?
Hudson River Park has also hosted multiple Black-and-white Warblers. Crawling up and down branches like a Nuthatch they look unconfusingly black and white striped like their spring selves—if a tad blurry from the ordeals of the summer.
Next up were a pair of Common Yellowthroats playing hide and seek through the undergrowth. The male still had his helpful black mask (and was keeping socially distant from the female or maybe he just needed his personal space after one too many Zoom meetings.) The female, though boasting her namesake yellow throat, gave me wishful pause that she might be a similarly yellow-throated Nashville, Wilson’s, or Yellow Warbler.
That same morning, a Black-throated Blue Warbler popped out of the shrubbery right after the Yellowthroats. This is one of the least confusingly named warblers. It is, in fact, noticeably blue with a black throat. (Millie looks up suddenly as if to suggest that she is a White-throated Red Corgi, equally, conveniently and correctly named.) Black-throated Blues get the Best Dressed Award, spring or fall, for never going out without a crisp “pocket square” on their wings.
A female American Redstart, bounding athletically high through the elm trees, displayed her non-seasonal name confusion. The male Redstart does have orange-red flashes on his wings and tail which he flicks repeatedly to distract insects from their becoming his next meal. However, the female is more suitably a Yellowstart with her bright yellow highlights which she employs with equal aplomb as the male to startle up lunch. At least neither turns to a Redstart of a different color in the fall.
And finally, my cover bird, featured more because it’s pretty than because it’s confusing! In the spring the Northern Parula has a jaunty orange and yellow cravat, blue head and wings, and with a green back. Their fresh molt into fall features a more au naturel look sans the neck bling and with an overall subtler palette. It’s cheerful to ponder whether the bird I photographed in May could be the same bird returning for the photoshoot of his fall collection.
Hearing my typing slowing down, Millie looks up. Maybe it’s time for an unconfusing treat.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for links to ALL of my WestView articles, books, photographs, and the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban adventures in nature outings throughout the five boroughs (currently on hold). Follow me on Instagram @newyorkcitywild for daily photos from around NYC.