BIRD WATCH: Winter warblers welcome

“IS THE TOWNSEND’S warbler rare around here in the winter?” The question was a good one.

A long, long time ago, I would have thought it to be very rare.

Now, I expect to enjoy the occasional winter visitor.

The water in the bird bath is the attraction, but once they discover the lard/oatmeal mix, they visit often.

This warbler is an attractive bird with plenty of yellow and black on its head and breast, plus some white in its tail, wings and undersides.

Unlike most other warblers, its plumage looks the same, spring or winter.

Some warblers, mostly the eastern ones, look very different in their fall and winter plumage and can be difficult to identify.

So, why are Townsend’s warblers showing up at some feeding stations and not at others?

I do know they love the lard/oatmeal mixture. In fact, that’s all they eat along with the insects they find.

Warblers aren’t seed eaters. They’re insect-eaters.

They are also bold and will chase away the chickadees and nuthatches while claiming the feeder as theirs.

It’s a good thing they eat and then leave for a while. Then the others can fill up.

One other winter warbler the Townsend’s chases away is the orange-crowned.

Audubon chapters throughout Western Washington frequently report this warbler on their annual Winter Christmas bird counts.

Mild winter weather may be a factor but another reason could also contribute to their winter movements.

It is common for warblers to attach themselves to fall and winter flocks of other small insect-eating birds.

They often show up when chickadees, nuthatches, bushtits, wrens and brown creepers visit an area.

While searching for insects in the company of these other species, already familiar with feeders, they discover them too.

They’ve probably always wintered here in small numbers but were seen in less populated areas.

Whatever the reason for these winter warbler sightings, I am happy to see them.

Before these winter visits started, the orange-crowned warbler was the first warbler I looked for every spring.

I usually hear them first. Their call is described as a, “colorless trill.”

Once learned, it is easily remembered and recognized.

While the Townsend’s warbler prefers mature forests for nesting habitat and is found in the greatest numbers in the mountains, the orange-crowned frequents a variety of habitats in the lowlands.

Sometimes they nest in our yard while the Townsend’s only stops for a short time during migration.

Another warbler on record as a winter resident is the yellow-rumped.

Formerly considered two species, the Audubon’s and the Myrtle, it has a regular winter range in Western Washington.

It is often found along our coast where dense stands of shore pines and Myrtle offer protective cover and support a good insect population.

Throughout Puget Sound, especially near water, this warbler’s call (chek!) and trilling song gets your attention.

They alert you to the fact that yellow-rumps are in the area.

When they’re around, they are hard to miss and usually plentiful in number.

Their winter plumage is pale compared to their spring and summer color. Look for yellow markings on their shoulders, throat, top of head and especially their rump.

The Myrtle race has a white throat. Both can be seen in the same flock, especially during migration.

Here in the Northwest, we have a small group of warblers compared to the variety on the East Coast.

The fact that three of them stay around during the winter months is special.

Their occasional flashes of color are as welcome as sunshine on a winter day.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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