A Moment With a Townsend's Warbler

And when I say a "moment," I really do mean a moment!  Warblers can be tricky to capture on camera, at least for a rank amateur like myself, because of their tendency to stick to areas of dense leafy cover, and their aversion to staying still for longer than, well, a moment.  

But I happened to catch this beautiful Townsend's Warbler preening one morning last week in Monterey, and managed to snap a few of the better warbler photos I've ever managed to capture.

Warblers are considered "birders' gold" by many, and rightly so!  Most of North America's 54 species of warblers sport yellow plumage to some extent, from the entirely yellow Wilson's, Prothonotary and Yellow Warblers, to those with more subtle patches of yellow, like the Black-throated Gray and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  While North America boasts a wealth of warblers, most of them are birds of Northern and Eastern forests.  During spring and fall migration, birders turn out en masse to catch glimpses of these fluttering gold nuggets as they pass through key stopover sites, like Ohio's Magee Marsh, High Island on the coast of Texas, and New York City's Central Park (among many others) on their way to and from warm wintering sites in the tropics.

Here in the West, particularly California, around 15 species of warblers occur regularly, plus a few more species that may turn up as vagrants during migration.  Of those 15 species, most breed in riparian and coniferous forests of the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges, making spring and fall migration one of the better times to catch glimpses of them in the Central Valley as well.  Because of their insectivorous habits, very few warblers spend the winter in northern climes.  But a few, like the Yellow-rumped Warbler and Townsend's Warbler, are winter visitors here.    

Strikingly patterned, Townsend's Warblers light up winter days throughout coastal California where they remain from fall through spring.  During the summer breeding months, they are found in coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest where they nest in tall conifers high above the ground and feed on insects gleaned from foliage.  In the winter, I have had excellent luck finding them in coastal riparian and coniferous forests and groves, from tracts of woodland habitat to suburban parks.

Searching for warblers can be equal parts delightful and frustrating.  Many species stay fairly high in the canopy, which results in the development of a painful condition known as "warbler neck" in birders who spend long hours, head back, peering up into the treetops.  The frustration is compounded by warblers' small size and active habits.  And you would be surprised by how well yellow feathers disappear against green foliage!  When you do get a good look at a momentarily stationary warbler, it's often from an unflattering angle, looking up at the bird's underparts!  But happily, warblers have distinctive under-tail patterns to aid in their identification.

The photo at the top of this post is what you see in your field guide.
This is what you see in the field!

For help identifying warblers from any angle, check out the resources available for free download from The Warbler Guide.  For more fun with warbler identification, check out these quizzes from Sibley Guides: Warblers from below and More warblers from below.


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