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Confusing Fall Warblers: Myth and Reality

September 21, 2012
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Roger Tory Peterson, for all his myriad gifts to the birding culture he, as much as anyone, created, probably set the science of bird identification back at least 50 years when he published, in his 1934 magnum opus, two pages of young female parids he dubbed “Confusing Fall Warblers”.  It may have been pique.  It may have been fun.  But the name stuck.  Stuck so hard and so long that you almost never come across a beginning birder who isn’t already paranoid beyond belief at the perceived difficulty of warblers in the fall before the first redstart trickles into their yard.  Roger, you were great.  But on this, you screwed up royally.

Thing is, fall warblers aren’t all that difficult.  Sure there are a couple cryptic species pairs that require a good look, but with few exceptions fall warblers are just slightly more subtle versions of spring warblers.  Where there are streaks, you find fewer streaks.  Where there are masks, you find fainter masks.  And that’s not even getting into the nearly half of fall warblers that look exactly like they do in spring.  Take a gander at a southbound Black-throated Blue Warbler or  Hooded Warbler and tell me that’s a hard one, whydontyou.  Once you wrap your brain around the field marks of the occasionally difficult Blackpoll/Bay-breasted/Pine complex and the ostensibly confusing Tennessee/Orange-crowned pair (and the calender is the best field mark for these two), you’ve got it made.  Bottom line is, while there are a few toughies, the problem of “confusing fall warblers” is way way overblown.

Well, maybe.

Yesterday morning while I was out at Eno River State Park I came across a fall warbler that initially threw me for a loop.  It was streaky, but not really streaky.  It was yellow, but sort of inconsistently yellow.  And it didn’t have any obvious facial field marks.  It was weird.

And as I stood there, sort of internally going over my subconscious field marks, nothing immediately came to mind.  It sort of looked Cape May-sy, but the shape was all wrong.  The bill was too big and the tail too long.  Like most people who got started birding when they were kids, I sort of bird by feel; by which I mean, I sometimes have a hard time ticking off individual field mark in my head.  Instead I get by with my gut a lot, which I’m pretty sure is a combination of the way my brain wired itself during those critical early teen years* and the internalization of years of field guide text I can’t unpack in any sort of organized manner.

*Seriously, though, there’s a lot of research that suggests that your brain does a ton of internal rewiring in those years.  You always remember what you learned as an early teen.  I haven’t played the piano in 15 years, but I can still sit down and hammer out the opening part to Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag because I taught myself as a 13 year old.  And I’ll bet you can do weird stuff you learned at that point in your life too.  I am convinced this is why all the great birders started young.  

What I mean is, my gut was telling me what this bird was even if my head had no freaking idea yet.

Fortunately, I got some good looks at it, and the behavioral clues kicked in.  For starters, it started bobbing it’s tail.  The ID hit me like a Wild Turkey on a windshield.

Prairie Warbler.  Of course.

Once that was clarified I was able to see some of the important field marks.  The faint eye crescents.  The pale patch behind the ear.  And when you look at it knowing what it is, you can absolutely see how it’s just a super faint version of the original.  A first year female, no doubt.  The most difficult of the warbler plumages, but honestly, one you’re not apt to see all that often so there’s no reason to sweat it too much.

That mystery all taken care of I went back to my regular birding, where I found classic Tennessee, Black-throated Blue, Redstarts, and Chesnut-sideds.  Pieces of cake and not a single other fall warbler that even got close to “confusing”, not that you’d expect it thanks to that punk Peterson.

No, the hard birds were the two weird Empids.  Now that’s a group that deserves your anxiety.  But that’s a story for another day.

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7 Comments
  1. September 21, 2012 7:11 am

    Great post, I agree, and often marvel at how our brains work. Being a late bloomer as well in birding, I often go by my gut, but go through the mental exercises of why it is that so I learn them better. It also means I tend to mis-identify a few. Very nice pictures.

  2. September 21, 2012 8:59 am

    I remember all the little things I memorized when I was 11 and 12 years old…including the McDonald’s menu promotion, where if you could recite the menu, you’d get something free.

    • Nate permalink*
      September 21, 2012 11:32 am

      Big Mac, McDLT, a quarter pounder with some cheese…

  3. September 21, 2012 9:42 am

    I have a book from the ’60s, maybe, about becoming a better birder, and there’s a chapter on shorebirds. There’s a lengthy discussion on the extreme difficulty of identifying Stilt Sandpipers in the field; the author says that a birding mentor of his never successfully identified a live Stilt Sandpiper in the field. Which boggles the mind, of course, given the elegance and beauty of these birds, and their identifiability, even at long distances under bad conditions.

    I guess my point is that the world has changed almost unimaginably since the 1930s, and fall warblers probably WERE incredibly confusing in those days. Yes, it’s too bad that the name has stuck and creates mental blocks for birders today, but I don’t think we can fault RTP or others for their experiences decades ago, given our access to spectacularly high-end optics, internet and mobile devices, high-resolution digital cameras, and decades of knowledge and field experience accumulated since those days.

    Yes, you are writing tounge-in-cheek, I get it, but it is pretty amazing to stop and consider how much field ID has changed in some a lifetime!

    • Nate permalink*
      September 21, 2012 11:34 am

      You’re right, of course. I’ve looked back at old Peterson guides and it’s incredible what they considered unidentifiable in the field. It’s the same stuff that Sibley draws attention to with a few spare words and an arrow. We live in incredible times.

  4. Hal W. Broadfoot Jr. permalink
    September 25, 2012 12:46 pm

    I had the exact same experience in early August at Huntington Beach State Park. About the time I figured out the first-year female prairie, an adult male prairie joined her.

  5. walldecalhh permalink
    October 8, 2012 5:49 am

    Beautiful birds, they are so lovable, thanks for sharing!

    white azalea

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