The Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle Fall Warbler Warm-Up

StephensonTom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, authors of The Warbler Guide, have begun blogging like crazy as the fall migration season begins. Their blog,, contains posts like the one below, which we will be posting here as well for your bird-viewing pleasure.

Tom Stephenson’s articles and photos have appeared in Birding and Bird Watcher’s Digest, at, and in the Handbook of the Birds of the World. He has guided groups across the United States and Asia. A musician, he has had several Grammy and Academy Award winners as clients, and was director of technology at Roland Corporation.

Scott Whittle lives in Cape May, New Jersey, and has twenty years of experience as a professional photographer and educator. He holds an MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York, is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, and is a onetime New York State Big Year record holder.

Plus make sure you check out the bottom of this post for some exciting free downloads and giveaways!

Fall is here (for birders, anyway) and warbler migration is underway!  We thought it might be a good time to try a quiz on one of the more frequently confused warblers… here it is:


Quiz photos can be a little weird since you only get one look at the bird, and they lack all the other useful cues we use when birding like habitat, behavior, probability, etc…but that’s part of the fun!  Let’s supplement a little here – this bird seems smallish, it’s actively picking insects out of this low cedar, and it’s in Cape May, NJ in September.  Once or twice we see it chase another warbler away from the branch it’s on.  So now that the scene is set, let’s get started.

First, this is a drab bird.  Mostly gray, with some greenish/yellowish tinging, the first issue with this bird is finding ANY field marks!  Actually, that impression of a “lack” of field marks is a good clue, and is a common experience with this bird.

Looking at the finders in the Warbler Guide, I see a few possibilities…


So what can we look at that might narrow it down?  Let’s get beyond the “plain gray” thing and see what we can see…the bird has a fine pointy bill, and it looks slightly drooped or decurved.  There is some blurry streaking that goes through the flanks, and maybe the faintest, patchy yellow tinge around the breast.  If I look at the finder, I can eliminate the birds that don’t have distinct streaking:


I see two other birds I can eliminate here…the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) has yellow shoulder patches, and a white malar/throat, which our bird lacks, and the Palm Warbler has a yellow undertail and wide supercillium, while our bird’s undertail is white, with only an eyeline and eye arcs.  Also, Palm warbler is a habitual tail-pumper, and this bird isn’t doing that.

So now we’re down to three birds: Blackburnian, Blackpoll and Cape May.

Cape May_230-231.jpg
There are a couple more details about this bird that I think will confirm our ID.  First, look at the wings – see the greenish edging on the flight feathers?  Also note that there is actually a greenish-yellow rump on this bird.  Both those marks are excellent…the greenish edging to the feathers is diagnostic for a grayish bird, and the rump is shared only by Yellow-rumped Warbler (which we eliminated) and Magnolia Warbler (which is a brighter yellow, and is actually higher up on the back…the base of the rump is black).  So I think we’ve arrived…it’s a Cape May Warbler!

Next time a drab gray warbler turns up, we now know to check a couple of things… greenish wing edging?  Yellow-green rump?  Fine, pointy bill on a smallish bird?  Aggressive behavior (hence the nickname “Tiger of the Woods”)?  Blurry streaks in the flanks, often with a little patchy yellow in the breast?  And finally (not shown in the quiz photo), fine streaking that extends across the upper breast?  All of these are good indicators that should nudge you towards a Cape May.  Let’s hope we see lots of these great birds this fall!


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Our prize package includes a copy of The Warbler Guide, The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors, and How to Be a Better Birder, a pair of Zeiss TERRA binoculars, and the audio companion for The Warbler Guide.

How to win? Visit this post for details, but there are numerous ways to win, including liking any of the three books Facebook pages, emailing us at, signing up for our email alerts for Bird and Natural History Titles at,or tweeting at @PrincetonNature or at any of the author’s Twitter pages (@IDCrossleyGuide or @The WarblerGuide). The winner will be selected at the beginning of October.

And to check out the free downloads we’re currently offering, check out the links below:
Crossley ID Guide Raptors : A sampler raptor guide in PDF format
Quick Finders from The Warbler Guide : A ‘quick finder’ designed to help you identify over 50 warblers faster with targeted color photos.

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