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Northern parula ushers in rush of spring’s colorful tropical migrants

Photo by Hans Toom/Pixabay • A male Northern parula looks splendid in spring plumage. These warblers attract attention with their buzzy songs, which is useful for spotting them since these birds spend much of the time in the treetops.

By Bryan Stevens

Last year, the first warbler to return in the spring was a male Northern parula that arrived on April 9. This year’s return was a few days later than that, but it was once again a Northern parula at the vanguard of the spring migration.

In April and continuing into May, a couple of dozen warbler species will pass through Tennessee. Some of these warblers find area woodlands and other habitats to their liking. They will pause, explore and perhaps decide to spend their summer nesting season in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina rather than continue migrating farther north.

Many of the warblers that pass through each spring, however, are destined to travel a much longer distance before settling down in their favored habitats for the summer nesting season. These warblers include the Tennessee warbler, Nashville warbler, Cape May warbler, blackpoll warbler and Connecticut warbler. Most of these species nest as far north as New England and Canada.

Others find the Southern Appalachians to their liking. Some of the first warblers to return each year include the Louisiana waterthrush, which favors rushing mountain streams, as well as species such as black-throated green warbler, hooded warbler, ovenbird, worm-eating warbler and common yellowthroat.

The Northern parula didn’t used to be one of the first returning warblers at my home. That honor used to go to hooded warbler or black-throated green warbler.

Spring has been returning in fits and starts, which could have some sort of overall effect on bird migration. 

I’ve still not seen a ruby-throated hummingbird, although some readers are still sharing stories of their first spring hummingbird sightings. 

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Lynne Reinhard of Abingdon, Virginia, reported her first hummingbird of spring on the morning of April 7. She shared the sighting in a Facebook comment to my page.

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Pat Stakely Cook in Marion, North Carolina, posted on Facebook at 5:33 p.m. on April 11 about seeing her first spring hummingbird. 

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Beth Barron Wolfe shared her first sighting with a comment on a post of mine on April 7. 

“I saw one last week, but it hasn’t returned,” Beth wrote.

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Karen Fouts of Marion, Virginia, also shared her first sighting via Facebook Messenger.

“We have our first hummingbird of the year this morning (April 13) in Marion,” she wrote. “Perhaps it was the angle of my view, but it looked like a female, which is unusual.”

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Nancy Vernon in Bristol, Virginia, posted about her first sighting. “Saw one yesterday (April 13) at my feeder in Bristol right after I put it up,” she wrote.

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Tammy Jones Adcock in Erwin shared her first sighting via Facebook comment. She reported that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 13 at her Erwin home.

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Karen and Bobby Andis in Kingsport sent me a Facebook message about their first hummer of spring. 

“Our first hummingbird was seen at 12:37 p.m. on April 14,” they wrote in the message. “Got our feeder hung awaiting the others.”

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Donna Barnes Kilday reported with a Facebook comment that she saw her first spring hummingbird at her home in Erwin on April 14. “First hummingbird of the year!” Donna reported in her comment. 

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Nan Hidalgo in Jonesborough posted her sighting as a comment on my Facebook page. 

“First hummingbird just now in Jonesborough,” she wrote around 1 p.m. on April 14.

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Phyllis Moore in Bristol, Virginia, also reported a hummingbird arrival. “Just saw our first hummingbird in Bristol,” she wrote just after noon on April 14.

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Rhonda and Randall Eller in Chilhowie, Virginia, posted a comment on April 14.

“Just had that first hummingbird,” they wrote. “He was early this year! Last year he didn’t come until April 24.”

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Paula Elam Booher in Bristol, Virginia, reported on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 14.

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Steph Anie shared via a Facebook comment that she has been seeing hummingbirds since late March at her home northeast of Atlanta. 

“We have had them for two weeks now,” she wrote on April 7. Again, people residing farther south usually get to welcome back hummingbirds before those of us in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

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So, my Northern parula is my consolation for not yet seeing a ruby-throated hummingbird. This warbler has an abundance of identifying characteristics. Adult males are bluish gray overall with a yellow-green patch on the back and two white wingbars. A chestnut band separates the male’s bright yellow throat and chest. Adult females are often a bit paler and typically lack the male’s breast band. Both males and females have distinctive white eye crescents.

Like most warblers, they lead frenetic lives. They often sing high in the tops of trees, but they do occasionally venture closer to the ground, particularly when foraging for prey, which consists of a variety of insects and small spiders. 

The more reliable means of locating a Northern parula is to listen for the male’s  buzzy, ascending song. He is a persistent singer from the time of his arrival until mid-summer. 

A quirk involving nesting material is somewhat unique to this warbler.

In much of the southern United States, the Northern parula conceals its nest inside strands of Spanish moss draped from the limbs of live oaks and other trees.

In the Southern Appalachians and other locations farther to the north, the absence of Spanish moss means that the birds rely on various Usnea lichens, which are sometimes referred to as “Old Man’s Beard.” 

Overall, the population of this warbler is in good shape. According to Partners in Flight, numbers of this warbler have increased by 62% since 1970. Unfortunately, some populations in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri have been affected by logging and the drainage of bogs. 

Once paired up, Northern parulas may attempt to raise two broods in a nesting season. The female lays two to seven eggs and does most of the nest construction.