The Golden-winged Warbler is a gorgeous species of wood warbler. Its rarity and threatened existence makes it a great find for birders and wildlife photographers. I had a wonderful and extremely fortunate opportunity to photograph Golden-winged Warblers on two occasions this spring. I hope you enjoy these photographs because it is a bird you may never see unless you are in the correct habitat and are specifically looking for it.
The Golden-winged Warbler is a slivery-gray bird with a golden crown and wing accents. Males have a bold black-and-white face pattern. Females are similar but lack the black face and bib.
Once common in the northeast, the Golden-winged has been declining recently in southern parts of its breeding range. As it disappears, its close relative the Blue-winged Warbler has been advancing north. It is not completely understood why the Blue-winged is driving the Golden-winged out of the best habitats.
Hybridization is another element in the sharp decline of Golden-winged Warblers. The Blue-winged Warbler is a much more aggressive and dominant bird. These two species are known to hybridize where they share breeding grounds. Their hybrid offspring are known as a “Brewster’s” Warbler and “Lawrence’s” Warbler. Sorry, I don’t have photos of a hybrid to share. However, here is a brief description of the two hybrids as explained on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. “These can be variable, but “Brewster’s” Warbler is mostly gray and white with a yellow forehead, like a Golden-winged Warbler, but has a black line through the eye instead of the stronger face pattern of the Golden-winged. “Lawrence’s” Warbler has yellow overall, like a Blue-winged, but shows the Golden-winged Warbler’s black mask and throat patch.”
Back to the Golden-winged Warbler.
This beautiful species breed in dense, tangled, shrubby habitats such as regenerating clearcuts, wet thickets, and tamarack bogs. Tamarack is a very cold tolerant evergreen also known as Hackmatack, Eastern Larch, Black Larch, Red Larch, American Larch, or Juniper. Wildfires, flooding from beaver dams, and tornado destruction are a few ways shrubby openings amid a forested landscape are created. Once their young have fledged, they move into nearby woodlands.
In the early 20th century, habitat for the Golden-winged Warbler was common when settlers cleared land for homes and farming. Many of those areas have grown back into forests. Wildfires and beaver dams are more controlled these days preventing natural habitat to be formed.
With about half of the global Golden-winged Warbler population being in Minnesota, I realize how fortunate I am to have spent some time photographing them.
At only 5.1 inches long and weighing a mere 0.3 - 0.4 ounces, they make it all the way to open woodlands and shade-coffee plantations of mountainous Central and South America for the winter.
You can see in the range map to the left the Golden-winged Warbler is a long-distance migrant. With migration movement peaking in September, they travel south mainly through a corridor of states east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachians. Spring migration and their return north begins in April but they don't arrive in Pennsylvania until early May.
Golden-winged Warblers often hop along branches of brushy and shrubby areas, carefully checking each leaf for prey, even sometimes dangling off the edges of branches like a chickadee.
So what are they searching for? Food items they prefer are caterpillars, spiders, moths and other insects. Leafroller caterpillars appear to be an important food source. Golden-winged Warblers probe with their sharp bills into rolled-up leaves to find the hidden caterpillars. They rarely catch insects while in flight.
Males sing a loud, very distinguishable, buzzy song from the tops of shrubs in spring and early summer. Interestingly, hybrids do not sing their own songs. Instead they sing either normal Blue-winged Warbler songs, Golden-winged Warbler songs, or both. One thing I needed to be aware of when I was searching the correct habitat of Golden-winged Warblers was I couldn’t rely on song for a positive identification. Sometimes, pure-looking parental types sing the "wrong" song. The Golden-winged in the photo below was singing the correct song for his species.
Only after territories and mates are selected do they become secretive and quiet.
Are you interested in their nesting activity? The female Golden-winged builds the nest, usually on the ground. The nest is built at the base of a plant with a tall thick stem such as Golden Rod or Blackberry for support. The base is made up of leaves and long strips of bark from a grapevine or arrowwood. Nests are 3.5 to 6 inches across and 1 to 2.5 inches deep. The female is very sensitive. If disturbed, they are known to abandon their nest even after the first eggs have been laid. They will also try to trick predators. As a decoy, they will carry food to places other than their nest.
The Audubon Society has a climate model that projects a shift of their breeding range completely out of their current breeding range by 2080. The summer range is expected to more than double thankfully to efforts of creating second-growth habitats. Since it doesn’t take long for the habitat to become established, there is hope that the Golden-winged Warbler will move with the climate space. There is more good news amongst all the sad news of their declining population.
These warblers will be around throughout my lifetime but I sure hope, with preservation efforts in place, children of today and all future generations will be able to enjoy these birds too.
Here is another example displaying their habits of hanging upside down from the end of tree limbs. This time he is singing his song.
Research for this photo blog included Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, Birds of Pennsylvania, and Stokes Field Guide to Warblers. Photography equipment used was a Canon EOS-1DX MK II and a Canon EF 600mm f/4L II USM Lens. In some photos I may have also used a Canon Extender EF 1.4X III rendering a f/5.6, 840mm focal length.
Thanks for looking,