Bay-breasted Warbler - fall

The annual migration calendar has flipped, and soon we will see a number of species migrating south from their breeding grounds in the north. As we noted last month, shorebird migration begins in July and peaks in late August and early September. By September, the first large groups of swallows have also moved south, and Common Nighthawks will be seen in the late afternoon and evening with groups passing through during the first week or so of the month. They are followed by the passerines, including the wood warblers. A small number of warblers begin to appear in the northern part of Ohio during the last week or so of August; however, the first large groups will begin to appear during the second week of September. Areas such as Sheldon Marsh and Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve are excellent areas to see these birds as they arrive and move south.

While learning the spring warblers is generally considered a challenge for birders–and can be overwhelming for beginners–fall warblers take even more time, patience, and careful observation. In the fall, many species of warblers look similar to their bright spring breeding plumages with faded colors or less extensive markings on the head or throat. Others, however, look completely different and have lost nearly all of their breeding plumage. Compounding the issue is that many of these birds are young-of-the-year and have yet to obtain many, if any, of the adult markings. Learning these species can be a rewarding challenge and provides a great reason to get out and enjoy Ohio’s autumn mornings. The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, is an excellent guide for learning fall warblers with its many comparison photos.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler Fall - Photo John Watts
Cape May Warbler (Fall) – Photo John Watts

Passing through in good numbers in the fall, Cape May Warblers can be found by watching evergreens, especially spruce trees. Gone is the brilliant chestnut cheek and face patch contrasting with the bright yellow to orange head and breast. The fine breast and flank streaks are still present along with a reduced wing bar or panel. The cheek patch is very light chestnut to gray. The dark eye line is generally present but is faded.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler Fall - Photo John Watts
Bay-breasted Warbler (Fall) – Photo John Watts

Early arrivals and some adult males still possess some of the chestnut color on the flanks, but the striking contrast between the black crown and chestnut throat and breast are greatly reduced to nearly gone in most individuals. The head and nape of neck vary from dark faded chestnut to yellow-green in color with visible streaking on the upper back or mantle. A good feature to look for are the dark legs and feet. This will help distinguish it from a Blackpoll Warbler.

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler Falll - Photo John Watts
Blackpoll Warbler (Fall) – Photo John Watts

A complete change from the black cap, white cheek, and throat and flank black streaking in the spring, fall Blackpolls appear as greenish-yellow-olive tones to gray with faint streaking on the on the sides of the breast, flanks and upper back and.  Pay particular attention to the legs and feet, which are pink or flesh colored to distinguish them from the Bay-breasted.  Blackpoll Warblers generally pass through Ohio in fewer numbers than Bay-breasted in the fall.

John Watts is a retired Resource Manager, Columbus Metro Parks, and a member of the Ohio Natural Areas and Preserves Association (ONAPA) Board Advisory Committee. This article is republished here by kind permission of ONAPA.