A male hooded warbler forages in a rhododendron thicket. This warbler spends much of its time in the thick understory of woodland habitats. (Photo by Jean Potter)

By Bryan Stevens

I came away from a recent program on bird migration given by Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman learning a few new nuggets of information about warblers, which are one of my favorite bird families. The Kaufmans, well-known birders and activists on the behalf of birds, spoke Saturday, Aug. 31, on the topic of bird migration during the evening program at the Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally. They confirmed some things I have always suspected to be true about fall migration in the region. For instance, warbler migration in the Southern Appalachians is indeed often more productive in the fall than in the spring. The Kaufmans also noted that fall migration takes place at a more leisurely pace for most of the migrating warblers. They even pointed out that some of the warblers, such as magnolia warbler and Tennessee warbler, which are uncommon fall migrants at their home in Ohio, are actually quite common in East Tennessee.

Hooded warblers nest in the woodlands around my home. So, from the time my favorite warbler returns in April until the last individual departs in October, I enjoy regular glimpses of this colorful and interesting bird. Like all warblers, the hooded warbler is quite energetic, dashing after tiny insects in the branches of shrubs and trees. Hooded warblers often forage close to the ground, which makes observing them easier.

Every time I behold a hooded warbler, I marvel at the bird’s exquisite appearance. The gold and green feathers seem to glow brightly in the dim light of the shadowy thickets of rhododendron they prefer to inhabit. The black hood and bib surrounding the male’s yellow face stands out by virtue of its stark contrast from the brighter feathers. Large coal-black eyes complete the effect. The appearance of the male bird provides this species with its common name. The female has an identical yellow-green coloration as the male, although she is slightly more drab. She lacks the black hood and bib, although older females may acquire some dark plumage on the head and around the face. Both sexes also show white tail feathers that they constantly fan and flick as they move about in thick vegetation and shrubbery.

I know that every migrant passing through my yard at this time of year is making its way southward, and it will likely be another five to six months before I again see any of my favorite songbirds. The hooded warbler will make itself at home in the forests of Mexico, as well as in Belize, Costa Rica and other Central American nations, throughout the winter season. Most hooded warblers begin returning to their winter haunts as early as mid-September, but lingering individuals continue to entertain birders in the United States throughout October.

Like many of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that make their home in the United States for the summer, the hooded warbler’s fall migration takes it across the vast open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, crossing to the Yucatan and then dispersing from there to various points in Central America. That birds as small as hummingbirds and warblers make this incredible migration twice yearly is one of nature’s most phenomenal feats of endurance. In their presentation, the Kaufmans explained that these tiny birds put on incredible fat reserves to help fuel their efforts.

The warblers, also known as wood-warblers, are an exclusively New World family of birds, numbering approximately 116 species. About 50 of these species of warblers make their home in the eastern United States and Canada for the spring and summer, departing in the fall and returning to tropical wintering grounds. Some of them are extremely bright and colorful birds. The hooded warbler would have to be included among the more brightly colored warblers.

Other colorful warblers that share similar tastes in range and habitat with the hooded warbler include the American redstart, black-throated blue warbler and black-throated green warbler.

While some of the neotropical migrants that venture into North America boast even brighter kin in the tropics, we need not feel cheated with the warblers that make their home in the United States for half of the year. Some of their relatives are beautiful birds, including the white-faced whitestart, golden-bellied warbler, three-striped warbler and rose-breasted chat, but few can really hold a candle to their relatives that venture north and brighten our lives.

The warblers are, in short, an incredible family of birds. I’ve seen all but a handful of the species that reside for part of the year in the eastern United States. I still want to see a Connecticut warbler and cerulean warbler, as well as the endangered Kirtland’s warbler of Michigan and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas. I’ll miss the warblers once fall migration has run its course. For those months they are here, the warblers belong to us. They seem like “our” birds. They’re only on loan, though. Our winter birds will offer some compensation in their absence, but I’ll be impatiently awaiting that flash of gold from the recesses of a rhododendron thicket next April.