It’s warbler season: Tips to finding and identifying warblers

You've probably heard of warblers, but many people don't have the opportunity to see one or don't know if they do.

These birds only come through northwest Iowa twice a year, for a couple of weeks at a time as they migrate to their northern breeding grounds. Since they are insect-eaters, warblers migrate south in the winter. Sometimes they stay in the southern parts of the U.S., but most end up in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean or even northern South America, where they can find plenty of flying creatures to munch on while we freeze in Iowa.

In the spring, usually mid-April through mid-May, they head north to breed, some migrating as far as northern Canada.

So there is a small window that we can see these majestic creatures come through the area.

Even when they are here though, they can be tough to see and identify. With more than 50 warbler species in the U.S., even some experienced birders have trouble identifying which one they have seen. They're tiny, fast and tend to stay high in the trees, making them even harder to get a glimpse of.

First, find a habitat. Spring migrating warblers are looking for a place for a pit stop, so they need food and shelter. That usually means forested areas for warblers. Some species like low, wet areas; some like spruces; some will look for clusters of willows. Look for either large areas of forest that many warblers will shoot for, or stop at a random cluster of trees amidst a large expanse of unsheltered open space. Warblers may stop there after not seeing shelter for a while.

Wait for a yucky day. You may think birding is more fun on a bright, sunny day, but often those are the days that birds use to migrate. They will use winds blowing from the south to fly high and pass right on by. However, storms and rain may force migrating birds to stop their flights and find shelter. Rain will also make warblers come down from their favorite treetops to lower branches where you can get a better look at them.

When you see a warbler, there are some main parts to look for to help in identification. First, look at color. Warblers are incredibly colorful creatures, so take stock if it is relatively plain brown with some subtle streaking or if has bright yellow, red, blue, white and black. Also, Christine Elder suggests looking at:

  • Eye rings
  • Stripes around the eye, whether they are above, below or through
  • Patches of color and their location
  • Wings bars and color
  • Underparts: Some species are identified by colors and patterns on the breast, belly, sides and tail.
  • Overall size and shape of body and bill
  • Length of wings and tail feathers

Finally, take time to learn some common warblers, such as these six below.


  1. Rafzal Yousif on May 20, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Hmm, I’m from TX and I think you may be looking at a Yellow-rumped Warbler (specifically the Myrtle subspecies). If you look closer, Yellow-rumped Warblers (Myrtle ssp.) don’t have a yellow throat, they have a white one. And they do have spots of yellow and black streaks on the breast.
    And you may have been looking at a female.
    I suggest you check out Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin app, which is a helpful app to ID birds.

  2. Roseline Dzijacky on April 21, 2020 at 7:54 pm

    I can’t find similar marking in this bird that I saw. The closest is a warbler None resemble the pictures in this book National Audubon field guide or on line.
    I hope he comes back tomorrow. It will be sunny tomorrow. Don’t know if heel resume migration.
    Maybe it’s not a warbler.
    The yellow rump warbler has yellow throat. My bird had white throat.
    Had even nice stripes of yellow black white black yellow across the breast
    Are there any other birds that resemble warblers in those four colours yellow grey black white,
    I can’t see a band of yellow on any wing

    • Rafzal Yousif on May 20, 2020 at 9:28 am

      Or you may even have an integrade of different subspecies, that would explain why some of the parts of the bird don’t match up.

  3. Roseline Dzijacky. on April 21, 2020 at 7:40 pm

    Just saw I think what is a warbler in Geraldton Ontario
    The photo was dark to see the colours.
    At the feeder I noticed like a white throat quite pretty with yellow black colouring around the beast part upper belly , yellow strip top of head, black around the eye , breast divided into stripes of colours from left to right starting with bright yellow then black stipe white stipe in the middle breast to black then yellow stripe following again. Quite pretty.
    The mid bottom end of belly near back is whiteish. There is a promonant band of yellow going slanted like downward across the wing
    Wings looked white and black greyish
    Quite a fast bird. Reminds me of the speed of a nuthatch He liked my cedars I’ve got pine trees and spruce trees tall ones and two tall balsams
    Beak and legs black
    He flew in my tall maple
    I wish my photo would have turned out
    Was frisky with the junco at the feeder then after returning back to the feeder he took off. I can’t find one exactly like in my National Audubon field guide book It’s got top of head like myrtle warbler , black stripe across where eye is , white throat but chest from left to right with even coloring of the yellow larger stripes then Thuner two black stripes next to yellow white stripe larger like yellow with , in the middle.
    Could it be a male of the myrtle warbler and picture in this book is female
    This one does not have a diagnose band of yellow across the side wing
    Beautiful bird.