Confusing Fall Warblers: Myth and Reality
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.
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.