A rare warbler


Townsend’s Warbler (Setophaga townsendi) is not rare in North America but it is not often seen as far east as Calgary. It usually breeds in the Pacific Northwest (Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon) and winters in Mexico or on the western edge of California. However, the eBird map for Townsend’s Warbler shows a few sightings on the east coast of the United States and Newfoundland.

Through my dining room window, I glimpsed a little grey bird (most little birds look grey from far away) flitting from branch to branch in my neighbour’s tree (I think it is a Bay Willow, a.k.a. Laurel Leaf Willow or Salix pentandra, with hail-damaged leaves). After I grabbed my camera, the little bird was still there. I waited for it to flit onto a non-leaf-camouflaged branch. It obliged me for 20 seconds, explored a few more branches, then disappeared.

Townsend’s Warblers, like most Wood Warblers, eat mostly insects. They glean insects from leaves and needles in the upper third of tall deciduous and coniferous trees. This is likely what the warbler I was spying on was up to. Wood Warblers (New World Warblers) don’t actually warble. They were named after the warbling Old World Warblers which they resemble somewhat in appearance and diet but are not related to genetically.


  1. Terrific photo of a Townsend’s! It’s a species my older son tries to look for whenever we’re in Vancouver. ๐Ÿ™‚ Why were the old world warblers called warblers if they don’t even warble? ๐Ÿ˜€

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    1. Thanks Teresa :-). It always feels magical when a new warbler gives me a few seconds to take a picture that lets me identify it. Did your son get to see one? Where does he usually look for warblers in Vancouver?

      I haven’t read a whole lot about New and Old World Warblers and what I’ve read about the Old World Warblers is a touch confusing. The original Old World Warblers warbled. Some of the new Old World Warblers don’t warble. But I think all the typical warblers (genus Sylvia) in the new Old World Warblers family (Sylviidae) do warble. I listened to a few species on Youtube this morning. Warbling awesomeness! None of the New World Warblers (Wood Warblers, Parulidae family) warble.

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      1. Now I’m completely confused, too! LOL! I will have to ask my son where they go…often, my husband and my two sons will go on hikes and walks without me while I hang out with my sister, so I never remember where they see what bird. ๐Ÿ˜€

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        1. My sister lives in Vancouver too :-).

          So I found out a bit more about the Sylviidae and the Parulidae. According to science.jrank.com, which is some kind of online encyclopedia which I never heard of before (have you?), the two bird families resemble each other “largely because of convergent evolutionary influences, resulting from the fact that these unrelated birds occupy rather similar niches in their ecosystemsโ€”that of small, arthropod-eating birds. One difference between the families is the occurrence of 10 primary wing feathers in the Silviidae, compared with nine in the Parulidae.” I saw what I think is a Tennessee Warbler in a bush in someone’s front yard a few days ago and then later chanced upon a photograph of a Willow Warbler (European, Silviidae). They look really similar for unrelated birds! I may look for an authoritative book on these Warbler beings…

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          1. I’ve not heard of science.jrank.com either! My son learned a lot of his bird knowledge from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s home study course and from the various birding magazines and books we have, and whenever I have a question, I just ask him, so I don’t look up much online. ๐Ÿ˜€

            My younger son and I are reading about convergent evolution/macroevolution and that explanation makes sense. They don’t often name things very well, though, as my older son likes to tell me (e.g. old world robins are not at all similar genetically to new world robins).

            Let me know if you find some good books on warblers! I recommend the Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds which has a short, but reasonable description of both OW and NW warblers. ๐Ÿ™‚

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            1. You mentioned the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s home study before. I’ll look into it. I’m afraid I may be a touch too lazy for a full on bird course. It is easier for my brain to look at individual birds of interest.

              I will look up the Firefly Encyclopedia at the library. I’m really curious about bird evolution right now. Old and New Warblers. Old and New Flycatchers. I need a book that looks at world birds and families.

              Thanks so much for all your advice :-).

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              1. Hope you’ll find some good books in addition to the Firefly Encyclopedia that will tell you more info, Myriam! The Cornell Lab course is kind of intensive and difficult but you’re motivated, you’ll learn lots (I’m not that motivated either; I have the textbook from my son’s course so can just read it at my leisure). ๐Ÿ™‚

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                1. I have a few books on birds from the library at home at the moment. None of them cover world birds or evolution but they have lots of other interesting information. I’m learning at my leisure ;-). The best kind of learning! I’ll look into bird evolution on my next trip to the library. I’m reading a book on Great Plains birds (focused mostly on Saskatchewan) right now. I didn’t have any particular interest in them when I picked it up, but the author writes so beautifully that it is a pleasure to read.

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  2. Our warblers don’t warble?! I am disillusioned.
    When I was in college my ecology professor LOVED birds, warblers in particular. He would prowl around the base of buildings after storms and collect the sad little bodies of birds who had collided with the buildings. He would then preserve the skins for his students to study. I remember boxes and boxes of different warblers. To me they just looked like a lot of little yellow birds, but I’ll never forget how his eyes would light up when he was teaching us about them.

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    1. I guess your college had a lot of windows? It is cool that many cities now have bird friendly building design guidelines. I hope this helps decrease the millions of yearly bird deaths due to building collisions.

      Warblers are just so cute – their size, shape and beaks and the way they make trees and bushes come to life as they glean leaves and branches for insects.

      Thanks for sharing your interesting story. Passionate teachers are awesome :-).


      1. They sure are, Myriam. He was the best~looked and acted a lot like Aldo Leopold. You’re right, we had lots of towers. Not only did their windows cause problems, but they created wind tunnels that migrating birds had trouble with.
        They are so cute~I love the way you put that, making trees and bushes come alive. That is just what they do!

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        1. Oh, I’ve never heard of Aldo Leopold. Wikipedia says he was a seminal voice in environmental ethics and wildlife management. Maybe I’ll look up his most famous book.

          I also didn’t know about the wind tunnel issues of migrating birds.

          The world would be much less pleasant if it was just lawn and concrete. I’m glad there are people who are trying to keep the birds alive.


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