Every birder knows that warblers can be notoriously tough to properly identify. The little buggers tend to flit about high in the tree canopy, ducking and darting among leaves and branches that block views, and in and out of bright sunlight and dark shadows that throw off color perceptions and blur field marks. Never mind the bad angles necessary as you crick your neck to get a good look, usually of a feathered butt.
I’m fortunate to live in an area where warblers regularly come through my yard. The easier-to-identify species are frequent guests, including palm warblers with their wiggling butts and yellow-rumped warblers with their bright butter butts. (What is it with warbler butts?) I’ve also been privileged with visits from northern parulas, one bold prothonotary warbler, a few black-and-white warblers, and the occasional yellow-throated warbler. All of these cheery and colorful visitors did exactly as expected – flitting around in the laurel oak trees, darting about in the foliage, and daring me to get that confident identification.
But there was one other visitor who dared more than most. He flitted and darted, ducked and weaved, flew left when I looked right, hopped right when I looked left, and generally opted to be everywhere I couldn’t get a good view. I’d catch a glimpse of bright yellow, a flash of black streaking, a hint of wing bars, but never a good enough view to be certain. I had it narrowed down to either a prairie warbler or a pine warbler, both of which exhibit similar behavior and both of which can be found in my area year-round. Yet a dull female prairie warbler would look much the same as a bright male pine warbler, except for a few key field marks I was never able to see.
It took me more than a year puzzling over this warbler and its infrequent appearances. Finally, however, on one bright sunny day, a more cooperative than usual male paid my yard a visit. There it was – bright yellow underparts, bold black streaking on the flanks, prominent yellow and black swashes under the eye, dark bill. There it was – the prairie warbler.
Not only was this bird a treat to finally add to my yard list, but it’s a new lifer as well. And even more than that, it’s a reminder that we need to be patient and enjoy the birds; the identifications will come in all good time. Be pleased with the visits, and you’ll still be happy when you identify the bird, even if it might take longer than you think.