Fall warblers not so hard to peg

Bruce Mactavish telegram@thetelegram.com
Published on August 30, 2014

In my early days as a birdwatcher, the bird guide I used contained two plates containing fall-plumaged warblers. The plates were titled “Confusing Fall Warblers.” Talk about getting a beginner off on shaky grounds.

In real life, with a little experience, the fall warblers are not that difficult to identify — if you can get a look at them. Warblers are small and fidgety, rarely sitting still for more than three seconds.

The bright colours of spring warblers have changed to a duller version for fall migration. There are many kinds of them, each with their own pattern of marked feathers. The many young birds reared during the summer are now looking after themselves and mingling with the adults in large roving flocks, eating insects, especially little caterpillars, as they go.

Sadly the majority of warblers leave for good in early September.  Warblers are a pleasant and doable challenge.

It is not just the dedicated weekend birders that are noticing the warbler flocks at this time of year. Several backyard birdwatchers have been pleasantly surprised by warblers.

Linda Parsons of Gander said this past week was unbelievable with the warblers in her backyard. She had never seen any of them before but she took good photographs of a few and was able to put a name to some of them. Linda then emailed me her best pictures and was absolutely correct in all her identifications. Just goes to show that the warblers are not that difficult to identify if you can get a good look or a photograph.

John Hargreave of Harbour Grace also noticed many more warblers around his house than he usually sees and identified black-and-white, yellow-rumped and yellow warblers. Unfortunately, one flew into his window and died. Using his bird guide, he was able to identify it as the northern waterthrush. Despite the name, the waterthrush is a type of warbler.

Warblers cast a magical spell on people. I think it is because they are such tiny, smartly coloured and spirited birds.

An acquaintance of mine, who tries his best not be interested in birds, was captivated by the accidental sighting of a black-and-white warbler while walking with his wife in the forested part of Bowring Park in St. John’s. The striking black-and-white pattern is very distinctive and quite attractive. It is actually quite common in the woods of Newfoundland, but unless you are looking for warblers you are usually not aware of their existence.

The weekend warrior birders were out hunting for warblers. This is the time when southern warblers from the United States are also migrating and sometimes stray to Newfoundland on southerly winds. They are all very attractive birds that look especially stunning in the setting of Newfoundland alders.

Alvan Buckley and Alison Mews lucked into a southern warbler in the form of a hooded warbler in the alders along the Cape Spear road. The look was brief.

There was no time for a photo and no one else could relocate it. It was just a teaser for the season ahead.

This past Saturday, Ken Knowles and I spent two hours looking for warblers in the alders along the Bear Cove Point road near Renews. The warblers were plentiful but no southern gems were detected.

To give an idea of the abundance of Newfoundland warblers present, here is my list of warblers seen during the two hours; 20 yellow, 30 yellow-rumped, 75 blackpoll, 18 black-and-white, two mourning, 20 Wilson’s warblers, 18 common yellowthroats and 20 northern waterthrush.

It was a very birdy morning, yet someone walking down the same stretch of the road without poking their heads under the canopy of the alder would have hardly noticed a warbler.

Rare birds of the week

It is that season where hardly a week goes by without a new rare bird. Sometimes a rare bird finds you, such as the white-winged dove that dropped into Brian Singleton’s bird feeder in St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s Bay, for three days.

Similar to the mourning dove except with large white wing patches, this deep southern dove has a peculiar habit of showing up in Newfoundland every year.

Alvan Buckley has been actively pursuing rare birds in his free time before classes start in September and struck gold twice, finding a common ringed plover at Bellevue Beach and another at Portugal Cove South. The common ringed plover is very similar to the abundant semipalmated plover and it takes a trained eye to know when you are looking at one of these European rarities.

Sometimes all it takes is working in the right place. Clifford Doran lives at Cape Race during his duty as lighthouse keeper and always has a sharp eye out and his camera ready to photograph unusual birds. We were not expecting to hear of his discovery of a northern wheatear in August. We get a few each fall but not this early.

This bird still had patches of down attached to its back indicating it was recently fledged, but where did it come from? There was speculation that it could have hatched locally near Cape Race.

Or could it have arrived from coastal Labrador nesting sites?

Autumn birding really gets underway in September. Let the good times roll!

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at

wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.