Bay-breasted Warbler

Late this morning I was surprised to find a slender, greenish warbler moving along the lichen-covered branches of a pecan tree, searching for food. It moved quickly and intently over the branches, not fluttery or flitting from place to place. Because I haven’t often seen this warbler, it took me a few minutes to identify it – though I should have known immediately. Its breast was pale, and the soft buffy-bay color on its flanks and under its tail was distinctive. A beautiful Bay-breasted Warbler.

While identifying a warbler in fall plumage can be confusing and frustrating, it’s also a lot of fun, and this Bay-breasted Warbler stayed in clear view in the same tree for several minutes, so it was a good chance to study field marks. It was a warm sunny morning, and it helped that the warbler wasn’t fluttery or flying from place to place often. It foraged quickly and neatly along the branches and stopped often to eat something – some of what it ate looked like tiny caterpillars. 

This male was much less brilliantly colored than it would have been in spring, but the markings were still clear – dark wings with two bright white wing bars; a smooth greenish head; thin, sharply pointed bill; dark streak through the eye and a slight hint of a yellow band over the eye; a rather long tail – and I even got a good look at the underside of the tail itself, which was white, with a slight dark marking about halfway up. But the most obvious and definitive part was the soft buffy-bay color on the flanks and under the tail. It also showed this soft-bay color very pale under the chin.

Muted streaks on the sides confused me for a while, because most accounts of this species describe its underside as smooth and unstreaked. Back at home later, I eventually found photos on the Audubon Society website that show the blurry streaking in the male’s fall plumage – almost too subtle to see, but it’s there. And maybe in the one I watched there was some trick of the light that made the streaks show up more.

Bay-breasted Warblers breed mostly in northern spruce and fir forests and migrate through the eastern U.S. to winter homes in South America. They are considered an uncommon species whose remote breeding areas make them somewhat difficult to track.

I didn’t see any other Bay-breasted Warbler, or other migrant birds – though maybe there were others around that I didn’t find. This one seemed to be part of a small feeding flock of resident birds that included Eastern Bluebirds, a Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadees, and at least five Chipping Sparrows, two of them searching along the pecan branches for food near the warbler. After a minute or two, the Bay-breasted Warbler flew at the Chipping Sparrows and chased them away from its branch. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from not far away, and a Northern Flicker called a sharp kleer!

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