Warblers sport bright spring plumage

For many birders spring means warblers. Or, is it the other way around? I know when I see my first orange-crowned warbler of the season or a small flock of yellow-rumped warblers, I know spring is really here and summer is not far behind.

Why are so many birders so fascinated with warblers in the first place? I think it's because they are sporting their bright breeding plumage. Fall warblers are interesting; spring warblers are spectacular.

Even though the West is not the warbler "headquarters" of the United States, we get our share of these little beauties. Jackson County normally hosts 10 species each spring. And, with a little luck you could see them all this year.

Each year there are a few yellow-rumped warblers that spend the winter here, but the real surge for these birds is late April and May. Orange-crowned warblers slip into the hedgerows as early as late March, with some nesting in the higher mountains. May seems to usher in the others.

In the foothills look for Nashville, black-throated Gray, Townsend's, yellow, McGillivray's and Wilson's Warblers. Look for common yellowthroat on the valley floor in tall grass or in willows. The yellow-breasted chat at first doesn't look like a warbler. It is much larger at around 7 inches versus 5-6 inches of most warblers. Chats "skulk" around in blackberry thickets and heavy underbrush sometimes near water. Check Whitehorse Park in Josephine County for these colorful birds. Look in the tall firs and pines in the higher mountains for hermit warblers. I've had good luck for these guys around Howard Prairie and Hyatt Lake.

Altogether there are 54 species of warblers seen somewhat regularly in the United States. Although many will never show up in our area, be vigilant for strays. Anything could show up in migration.

Birds migrating from South and Central America sometimes get off track and end up here. Good examples are the Canada warbler found near Gold Hill and the chestnut-sided warbler and American redstart discovered near Rocky Point.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Central Oregon sees five-10 species of Eastern warblers each year.

This refuge really "hits its stride" around Memorial Day, with hundreds of birds migrating through the valley and at least 5-to-10 Eastern vagrants showing up every year.

So, get out your field guide, study the field marks of warblers common to our area and enjoy the colorful parade. I know I will.

Richard Cronberg is a birding enthusiast and photographer who lives in Central Point. Write him at P.O. Box 4283, Medford, OR 97501 or www.cronbergphotography.com.

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