Orange-crowned Warbler sighting punctuates fall’s parade of migrants

The annual migratory parade of warblers has ended, but not without a few final surprises. By the arrival of the region’s only winter warbler — the Yellow-rumped Warbler — it’s a foregone conclusion that the migration season for this colorful family of birds is almost at an end.

Photo by U.S Fish & Wildlife Service An Orange-crowned Warbler perches on a branch.

Photo by U.S Fish & Wildlife Service
An Orange-crowned Warbler perches on a branch.

There is, however, one final exception. One of the warblers tends to migrate later in the season than its kin. In a family of colorful birds like the Cape May Warbler and the Black-throated Blue Warbler, it’s also at a decided disadvantage when it comes to considerations like appearance.

Although it has a striking name — Orange-crowned Warbler — the patch of orange feathers atop this warbler’s head are rarely seen by observers in the field. In fact, the most conspicuous thing about the Orange-crowned Warbler is its lack of conspicuousness. This is a grayish-greenish warbler with only two dashes of color. It can also show some surprisingly bright yellow plumage under the tail. Only once, however, have I noticed the namesake orange crown patch that is usually kept concealed beneath a layer of gray-green feathers.

“Warblers of the Americas,” an identification guide written by Jon Curson, David Quinn and David Beadle, stipulates that the crown patch that this warbler’s common name derives from is visible only when the warbler raises its crown feathers. This little twist makes the orange crown patch a very unreliable field mark.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The faint gray streaks on the breast helps distinguish the Orange-crowned Warbler from the related Tennessee Warbler.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The faint gray streaks on the breast helps distinguish the Orange-crowned Warbler from the related Tennessee Warbler.

In fact, over the years, I’ve only observed a handful of these warblers. They tend to migrate through the region long after most other warblers. They’re also easily confused with Tennessee Warblers, which are another drab, greenish warbler that migrates through in large numbers in the autumn.

In my limited experience with these warblers, I’ve found they spend less time in trees and more time foraging in tall shrubs, such as Joe-pye weed and goldenrod. In many of my guide books, the text also indicates that this warbler prefers shrubby, weedy habitats.

This is a continent-ranging warbler, but it is much more common in the western United States than it is in the eastern half of the nation. A few of these warblers migrate into the southern United States for the winter. I’ve observed this warbler on a couple of occasions during late winter trips to the coastal areas of South Carolina. Other Orange-crowned Warblers push as far south as Guatemala for the winter season.

The orange-crowned warbler is related to the Tennessee warbler, and both species share a similar appearance. The Tennessee warbler is usually more greenish. The Tennessee also lacks the faint gray streaking that is present on the breast and flanks of the Orange-crowned Warbler.

Orangecrowned_warblerMENKE

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                                     An Orange-crowned Warbler forages for insects in a shrub’s bare branches.

I usually manage to see an Orange-crowned Warbler once a year, usually in the late fall. This year’s sighting took place during the final bird walk conducted each Saturday during October by members of the Elizabethton Bird Club at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Orangecrowned_warbler-Menke

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service              The Orange-crowned Warbler is more common in the western half of the United States.

Some other good birds on this final walk of the 2014 season included Common Merganser, White-crowned Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and Blue-headed Vireo.

Other species found on the walk included Canada Goose, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, Cooper’s Hawk, with captured starling in its talons, Killdeer, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, American Kestrel, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, House Finch and American Goldfinch.

As usual for a late October walk, it was also a very good day for sparrows. We found Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Field Sparrow perches on a briar's stem.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Field Sparrow perches on a branch.

I suppose it’s a little strange to get so excited about getting a brief look at a bird that I usually see once a year during a rather brief window of a couple of weeks. Of course, it’s that very scarcity of the bird in East Tennessee that makes these typically annual sightings so wonderful to experience.

••••••

I visited Wilbur Lake with my mother on Nov. 8 for the first time this fall. We wanted to see for ourselves that the flocks of Buffleheads had returned. We were rewarded with looks at about 50 Buffleheads, as well as 10 Gadwalls and seven Ring-necked Ducks. Plenty of Canada Geese and Mallards were also present on the lake.

Photo by Bryan Stevens Buffleheads, such as these, have spent the winter on Wilbur Lake for decades.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Buffleheads, such as these, have spent the winter on Wilbur Lake for decades.

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