Bird Files: Palm Warblers—O, Pioneers!

  • photo: Shawn Collins

  • photo: Shawn Collins

May 1, 2015

In the spring, birders at Presque Isle are on the lookout for a very special bird. The Palm Warbler. It’s not the rarest or showiest, to be sure. But it signals that the warbler migration floodgates are about to open, and soon all kinds of songbirds will be showing up.

These vanguard birds arrive first because their breeding grounds are high in the northern boreal forests, much farther than most warblers. They need time to make the trip!

Palm Warblers are easy to identify. They’re small—about five and a half inches from beak to tail. They sport chestnut-colored caps on their heads. Their faces and throats are yellow, and their backs are a drab brown. One particular habit that makes them easy to spot: Palm Warblers pump their tails incessantly. When they do, you can glimpse the yellow hiding underneath.

While most warblers flit about in the tree tops, Palm Warblers are also easier to spot because they spend most of their time on the ground or in the low underbrush.

You probably won’t hear a Palm Warbler’s song—they save their voices for courtship. When they do sing, their tune is a simple zi-zi-zi-zi-zi.

Their call note is a husky, distinctive chik.

Palm Warblers may lead the charge at Presque Isle, they also need to get moving north. So come soon if you want to see them, because their numbers dwindle by late May. On their brown and yellow coat tails will be the rest of the vibrant, singing warblers that birders are so eager to see after a long winter.  

Bird calls for the audio recording of this segment from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recorded by Geoffrey A. Keller and Linda R. Macaulay.