Cape May Warbler

The new green leaves of trees all through the neighborhood have been filled the past several days with the softly-ringing, gentle songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Late this morning I was standing by the side of the road, listening to their songs and watching several of them move through the branches of oaks. Now in spring plumage, their drab winter grays have changed into colorful patterns of black, gray, white and yellow – with black mask, white throat, and yellow patches on the sides and rump.

Among the songs of the Yellow-rumped Warblers and other small birds nearby, I began to hear a different song that was not one I recognized – a high, bright series of notes all on one pitch. And then I saw it – a small, brilliant yellow bird with black streaks on the breast and a prominent chestnut patch on its cheek. A Cape May Warbler. 

It stayed in the same few oaks for several minutes, moving through the foliage, searching branches and leaves for prey. Its movements were not especially slow, but it wasn’t fluttery or very quick, and so it was fairly easy to watch and was often in clear, open view. And it continued to sing often. The plumage was so vibrant and rich it looked exotic. The black streaks on the yellow breast are often described as “tiger-striped.” The face is yellow, with the distinctive chestnut patch on the cheek. A thick strip of white marks the wing, and there’s a subtle patch of green in the middle of the back – I was never able to see this very well. The underside of the tail was white, with a thin strip of dark at the tip.

It was not a life bird for me, but it felt like one, because I think this was the first time I’ve ever seen a Cape May Warbler in spring, breeding plumage. Until now I have only seen them during fall migration, when they are much less colorful. And even then, I have not seen them often here. So I stood watching for as long as it stayed in sight, trying to see all the details. It was a lot of fun to watch! Great birding.

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