Palm Warbler and Friend

My mid-November trip to Freeport Texas introduced me to a new bird (and an old friend).

November 16, 2022 ~ This is the last of my posts about birds seen during my mid-November afternoon around the boat dock at the end of Bay Avenue, in Freeport Texas. I showed the maps in a previous post, here.

I prefer to share my photos as soon after taking them as possible, because I might want to go back and try to get better images of a bird after researching it, or others might like to check out what I saw. In this case, I’ve allowed six busy and wonderful weeks to fly by, and this post is getting cold – my apologies. Time to get it out the door, to make way for more fun.

Swamp Sparrow sheltering from the chill wind
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window; close that window to return here.)

The piled-up sand berms along the dirt road around the little boat ramp lagoon host healthy crops of sunflowers and other tall weeds, and I noticed some active fluttering and chirping deep among the spare branches. I finally caught a clear, though dimly lit, shot of this little brown Swamp Sparrow. He stayed in the deep shade and played dodge-the-photographer, so I stepped back… and heard another interesting sound over to my right.

Immature or non-breeding Palm Warbler
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Was this also a sparrow? He certainly had the brown cap with dusty gray streak. But he didn’t have the broad-based seed-crushing sparrow’s bill. Or maybe he was a Butter-butt (Yellow-rumped Warbler), as there was a signature flash of yellow. But something wasn’t right. The Butter-butt is a lighter gray, and has darker streaks. And this bird’s yellow patch was not on his rump.

Palm Warbler showing off his signature tail
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I had to take the shots, and wait till I got home to look him up. This is a Palm Warbler, Setophaga palmarum, a migrant, only here during the winter months, and a new bird for me. The Palm Warbler comes in two color variations. This one is the Western Palm Warbler, which has much less yellow than the Eastern. Further, this bird is either an immature bird, or a non-breeding adult, so his colors are subdued. Sibley’s Birds says the Easterns winter mainly from Georgia through Louisiana, while Westerns winter all the way from Virginia through Texas as well as in the Caribbean and Central America (mingling with the Easterns in the middle).

Left: Range map for the Palm Warbler, courtesy of All About Birds; Right: Extent of the world’s boreal forests, courtesy of Science

The Palm Warbler’s breeding grounds are boreal forests, marshes and bogs across central and eastern Canada, where they feast on beetles, bugs, worms and other insects. On their winter grounds they add seeds and berries to their diet. In spite of their tropical-sounding name, they, along with the Blackpoll Warbler, are the northernmost breeding of all warblers (they were originally named by J. P. Gmelin, who collected a specimen during the winter on Hispaniola, a Caribbean island with lots of palm trees). I had to look up “boreal” forests – these are deciduous and conifer forests of plant and animal life that can withstand frigid temperatures year-round (including birds that can migrate south to escape the worst of the cold).

Palm Warbler in “don’t mess with me” stance
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

He flew toward some end-of-season Ox-eye Daisy, Borrichia frutescens, and perched, boldly staring, to challenge my chittering camera.

Snapshot of the Warbler Undertail Guide, showing the characteristic Palm Warbler tail.

His brown eye stripe cuts right through his eye, ending at his narrow insect-catching warbler’s bill. The Palm Warbler’s genus name is “Setophaga”, meaning “moth-eater”, and referring to the shared behavior of this group of avid insectivores.

Normally, a straight-on head shot like the one above doesn’t help much with identification… but warblers are special. From below, their tails have characteristic color patterns. And in that shot (and the “showing off” image), you can see enough of the tail to made a pretty-sure identification; check the second image from the right on the second row. Yep, Palm Warbler.

The Warbler Guides are available as free downloads from Cornell Labs, which are helpful, since there are some 53 species of warbler.

Palm Warbler in winter plumage
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

He has a buff chin, and loosely braided tan streaks down a chest marked with a very pale yellow wash. And he has bright yellow under-pants, or what birders term “undertail coverts”. Coverts are feathers that smooth the transition from one body part to another, keeping them aerodynamic. In this case, they smooth the transition from the lower belly to the tail.

A goodbye tail wag from the Palm Warbler
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

During the breeding season, they tend to stay with their own species, but during the winter, they join mixed-species foraging flocks with sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Pine Warblers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. So, my spotting him in the same plot as the Swamp Sparrow may have been more than coincidence: perhaps they were lunch buddies.

He turned to give me a good look at his winter-brown wings and tail, and then he was off through the late-season pink guara to find another seed head or juicy bug.

Author: Sam.Rappen

Retired from a major US manufacturer after 36 years of exciting work. Avid amateur bird watcher and photographer, and occasional blogger.

16 thoughts on “Palm Warbler and Friend”

  1. I can understand one of your early assessments being a YR Warbler – swear every third bird I am seeing down here is a butter-butt. Not sure if it is an eruption this year or they were always hanging out on the border during our January stays, but somehow didn’t see them. Told Ron I am DONE with taking pictures of them – my quota is filled for the year ha. Now the Palm, well that is a different story! Have not found one this year yet, but fingers crossed. Great pictures and appreciated you taking us through the ID process.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do enjoy the butter-butts. Who couldn’t love their flashes of sunshine. And when I got to see them in their mating plumage in Colorado, they were some decked out! I’m constantly amazed at the camouflage effectiveness of birds’ plumage, and this little fellow was a case in point: he would fly between the end-of-season sunflower stems and pause… and vanish. I would have to wait for a flick of movement before my eyes could find him again. Cloak of Invisibility, indeed!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Now I’m convinced; I have both Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting around. I was certain about the Yellow-rumped, but your great photos and description affirmed my suspicion about the Palm Warblers. I thought I’d been seeing very light yellow on the Palm Warbler, and your photo makes it clear. Since there are plenty of palm trees around my apartment’s property, as well as live oaks and bald cypress, it makes sense to me that both could find a home here: or at least a place to forage.

    You know at least one phrase associated with your unfamiliar ‘boreal’ forests: the aurora borealis, or northern lights!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How cool that I could help you with your identification puzzle – and so glad you have both Palms and Butters in your area. They are both little spots of cheerful sunshine in the gray days of winter. You are so right about the aurora borealis, I should have put that together. Somehow, I had “Borneo” rattling around in my brain; it’s like a library in there, and every now and then, something falls off the shelf. Thanks for reading and commenting, Linda L.!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your Freeport foray certainly was successful!

    The Palm Warblers are all over the back yard as I write. All of these are the western species but we typically see a mix of eastern and western on our field trips during migration.

    Excellent photographs and very informative post!

    One additional field tip for Palm Warblers. They almost constantly pump their tail up and down. That helps with identification even at a distance.

    The New Year is off and running and we hope 2023 will be all you wish it to be!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found the differing explanations of the ranges of Eastern vs Western that I got from Sibley and Cornell a bit confusing. From those, I concluded that the ranges were not really blended… but from your observation, it sounds like, at least in the mild Florida winters, they might be. Must be fun to watch them with their bouncing tails – I didn’t observe that directly, as the whole bird was flitting all over, so seeing the motion of just his tail was a challenge. Happiest of New Years to you two, too!


      1. My understanding is the eastern subspecies winter mainly in the southeastern U.S. while the western winters in the same area plus the Caribbean. Some data used to say the eastern was restricted in Florida during winter to the north part of the state but we see them in good numbers all winter.

        Doggone birds. They got wings!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: