Once the misery of winter fades, warblers burst onto the scene like a rainbow after the clouds. These pint-size songbirds pass through our parks, yards, and forests on their way north to their breeding grounds. They visit us in the fall, too, when they’re working their way south, but many of the males sport drab plumage and skulk in the shadows then. In the spring, though, they've molted into their flashiest feathers, so they strut out onto a catwalk of branches and sing their hearts out. You’ll find that it’s easier to identify them now—and even easier to become a warbler fanatic.
To see spring warblers, grab a pair of binoculars and choose a place with trees of various sizes and, if possible, a water feature. Then search high and low. Some species scurry along the ground, some forage in the canopy, and some creep along branches and trunks. Try learning to identify a few songs; you’ll often hear warblers before you see them.
Your reward for all of this searching, listening, and neck straining? A rainbow of exquisite avian hues.
Painted Redstarts are basically black birds that have waded into a pool of marinara sauce. They’re fun warblers to watch: They often flash white markings on their wings and tails, likely to spook their insect prey into view.
Where to look: Arizona and New Mexico, with occasional sightings in other southern spots like Big Bend, Texas. Search oak and oak pine forests in hills, mountains, and shady canyons near water.
Raring for more red? Red-faced Warblers occupy a similar range to Painted Redstarts. They’re mostly gray, but their heads are a striking mix of crimson and black. If you're looking for a richer red, try the eastern Chestnut-sided Warbler.
In spring, male Blackburnian Warblers set the canopy on fire. Their bright-orange throats stand out against their black head and breast stripes and white wing bars. Females are a mix of olive and black with yellow throats. In both sexes, you’ll see a yellow or orange crescent under the eye.
Where to look: Eastern United States. These birds breed in mature woods in southeastern Canada, northeastern United States, and Appalachia. Frustratingly, they often hang out in the treetops, so prepare for some neck aches. Listen for a zippy song that rises up to a pitch.
Craving more orange? Despite their name, American Redstarts are more orangey than red. They’re relatively common and migrate across much of the United States.
Yellow Warblers are a gift to budding enthusiasts. These birds are luminous against the new leaves like dots from a highlighter pen. They’re also common and widespread, and they love the kind of disturbed, thicket-covered landscapes that you’ll find near towns and cities. Plus, their song is clear and loud and has a distinctive (and adorable) mnemonic: sweet, sweet, you’re so very sweet.
Where to look: Everywhere. You’ll find them all across the United States and Canada during migration. They especially love shrubby or forest-edge habitats near water.
Yearning for more yellow? For warblers, yellow is all the rage. You’ll get your dose of sun with Prairie, Cape May, Wilson’s, Magnolia, Prothonotary, and many other species.
Black-throated Green Warblers are all about the subtle details. Their olive-tinged backs contrast with radiant yellow faces, striking wing bars, and inky-black streaks. Females have white throats and males have black throats. Fair warning, though: The species likes to hang out way up in trees, so you have to practice your spotting skills.
Where to look: Eastern North America, high in the canopy in decidious woods.
Keen for green? Tons of warblers are olive green, from Hoodeds to Wilson’s to Nashvilles. In the West, keep an eye out for Townsend’s Warbler, a striking relative of the Black-throated Green.
Male Black-throated Blues are Van Gogh’s Starry Night come to life: They have a rich midnight blue on their backs and wings, with black faces and moon-white patches. Amazingly, females look so different that they were once considered a separate species. They’re olive-grey with fierce pale eyebrows and a bit of blue on their tails. But you always can tell you’re looking at a Black-throated Blue if you see a white “handkerchief” on its wing.
Where to look: Eastern North America, in the middle or low parts of trees.
Got the blues? Several other warblers fit the color scheme, but you’ll get the most blue for your buck by seeking the more elusive, aptly named Cerulean Warbler.
Alas, there aren’t any violet warblers. But you’ll come close to this shade with the deep gray-black heads of the MacGillivray’s Warbler. To find a truly satisfying violet hue, step outside the world of warblers and search for Violet-green Swallows in the West and Purple Martins in the East.
Attract warblers to your own home! Plug your zipcode into our Plants for Birds database to learn which native flora and fauna pair up well together.