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Curious Nature: What makes warblers so cool anyway?

Nathan Boyer-Rechlin
Walking Mountains Science Center
A beautiful and colorful yellow warbler male checks out his reflection in the water.
Adobe stock image

For the sake of transparency, let’s get a few things straight. First, excepting an anomalous summer circa 1997, I am not a birder. Much to what I imagine would be the great disappointment of my 5-year-old self, my birding journey stopped at my family’s bird feeder.

Before writing this article, even as an environmental educator, naturalist and hiking guide, I couldn’t tell the difference between a yellow warbler and a goldfinch.

This brings me to my second point. I am not remotely qualified to break down the tips and tricks for identifying, what seems to be, many of the more elusive yet common birds flying through Colorado mountain towns each year. So, when I was asked to write an article on warblers and which species are in Colorado, and how to identify them, etc, I was left with a question I’m sure no self-respecting birder has ever entertained: What makes warblers so cool anyway?’

Warblers, members of the family Parulidae, it turns out are much like the other residents, passersby, and seasonal vagrants who make up our eclectic mountain town community. Most of the Eagle Valley’s birds are seasonal. These migratory species are vital parts of our ecological economy each spring.

Warblers are no exception. Of the roughly 40+ warblers who pass through North America each year, the vast majority of these are tourists on their way to breeding grounds further north. April and May are the best times to see how many warblers you can check off your list.

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In fact, if you’ve ever wanted to venture south to see vibrantly colored tropical birds in their natural habitat, you might consider saving on your plane ticket and simply spending a little more time looking around on your next hike. These brightly-colored birds are in fact tropical residents who spend much of their lives in Central or South America, some as far south as Peru.

However, much like a winter-curious beach bum who stops over in Vail on their way to Jackson, then never leaves, a few species of warblers stick around a little longer. A select few species are known to make their second homes on Colorado’s Western Slope.

For these birds, Colorado is still at the southern edge of their species’ breeding range. Two of the more common you might spot in the forests of Eagle County this spring and summer are the yellow-rumped warbler and the orange-crowned warbler.

Most orange-crowned warblers spend their winters in Mexico, though some travel as far south as Belize. In the Spring, they migrate nocturnally to northern breeding grounds. While some settle in Colorado, others travel as far north as Alaska.

These ground-nesting warblers prefer shrubby trees and bushes from wetland environments to open rangeland environments, but are known to inhabit more forest types than any other warbler. Breeding males can have very distinctive songs and often create “song neighborhoods” where a handful of nearby breeding males will mimic each other’s songs. According to data from Ebird.org, these birds are spotted regularly in the Vail area. Despite their name, however, these warblers’ plumage is more subdued than others.

Yellow-rumped warblers are one of the more common warbler species seen in North America each year. Similar to the orange-crowned warbler, the southern Rocky Mountains are the southern edge of their breeding range. Their summer plumage is a beautiful mosaic of dark charcoal and bright yellow.

Much more striking than their orange-crowned cousins, these birds are a great species to keep an eye out for on the trail. Their preferred habitat of mid-elevation conifer forests makes them a likely resident near many Eagle Valley trails. Very facultative foragers, these warblers eat everything from insects in the spring to berries come late summer and fall. Keep an eye out for their flashy aerial displays, often showing their yellow rumps as they chase after insects. 

So, what makes warblers so cool?

Well, I think that’s for you to discover, ideally with a pair of binoculars and bird book in hand. However, personally, I can’t think of a more fitting member of our mountain town community.

From seasonal tourists to second-home owners, acrobatic show-offs and musicians to homebodies, these birds fit right in here in the Eagle Valley. For more information on other local warblers look for some of our previous Curious Nature articles.

Nathan Boyer-Rechlin is the community outreach coordinator and lead hiking guide at Walking Mountains Science and newly aspiring birder.


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