The Challenge of Identifying Songbirds in the Fall

January 13, 2016  •  5 Comments

It's only mid-January and I'm already thinking about springtime and the return of songbirds.  Many will be migrating into land farther north while others come back to western Pennsylvania to breed.  I love to photograph birds and over the last three or four years, I've learned a lot.  I'm not as quick at bird identification as an experienced birder but I eventually get it.  Sometimes, I recruit help of friends for an ID.

September is the perfect time of year to evaluate your level of expertise.  Many of the birds that are so easily identifiable in the spring, are really difficult in the fall.  Many males, but not all, lose their beautiful palette of colors as the days grow shorter.  To an inexperienced birder or wildlife photographer, a male may blend in and become unnoticed.  Some can be confused with their female counterparts, whose colors don't change very much, or first year birds, male and female, that may look like an adult female.  That is the topic for this photo blog. 

Using photos of male songbirds made in April or May, I will attempt to compare them to the same species in the fall.  Some comparisons are drawn between males and some with females or juveniles.  My goal isn't to compare what a male looks like in the spring and fall but instead, to show you how difficult it can be to identify a fall bird. 

Before we begin let's take a look at some terms that I may use to describe identifying features.


Please remember that I am not an expert birder.  My goal is simply to share the wonders of nature, with you, through my lens.  I gather my information from experts that wrote books providing excellent descriptions.  The following is my interpretation of their descriptions combined with my own knowledge and experience.  With that said, let's begin with the Bay-breasted Warbler.

The breeding male is identified by his black lore and cheeks, chestnut crown, throat, breast and sides, two white wing bars, and pale yellow belly.

Bay-breasted WarblerBay-breasted WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


This photo, made in early fall, is another male Bay-breasted Warbler.  You can see several differences in his appearance.  His marks include an olive colored crown, dark eyeline, whitish throat, olive back, two white wing bars, and light chestnut sides.  The fall female is very similar but an identifying feature is a lack of chestnut on her sides.

Bay-breasted WarblerBay-breasted WarblerAdult Male (Fall)


The bright yellow eyebrow and cheeks of a Black-throated Green Warbler makes it easy to recognize spring through fall.  The olive-green crown, eyeline, back and rump combined with a black throat and black striped sides helps even a novice birder learn his name fast.

Black-throated Green WarblerBlack-throated Green WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


For me, this is a tricky image of a Black-throated Green Warbler.  A fall male is similar to the spring male except he has white mixed in the black throat and neck.  With all the white in the throat and chest and the finer black streaks on its sides, I believe this is a female Black-throated Green Warbler.

Black-throated Green WarblerBlack-throated Green WarblerFemale (fall)


The male Blackburnian Warbler is dressed for Halloween, even in the spring.  Previously known as "Firethroat" or "Torchbird", the Blackburnian is the only warbler with an orange throat.

Blackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


In the fall, the subdued colors of the male and female make look very similar.  The separation of the wing bars indicate this is a female.  A male's wing bars are closer and can look like one white patch.

Blackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerFemale (Fall)


The black eyeline and blue-gray wings define the springtime male Blue-winged Warbler.

Blue-winged WarblerBlue-winged WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


In the fall, the male and female look very similar as they both have a duller yellow crown and a duskier black eyeline. However, the thicker wingbars indicates to me this is also a male Blue-winged Warbler.

Blue-winged WarblerBlue-winged WarblerMale (fall)


In the spring, the male Chestnut-sided Warbler will sing his "Pleased, pleased, pleased to meet you" song to let other males know they are in his territory.  The yellow crown and prominent chestnut sides help us identify the Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Chestnut-sided WarblerChestnut-sided WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


This next photo is a male Chestnut-sided Warbler in his first fall.  Males, females, and juveniles look very similar in the fall but the faint chestnut sides is a mark of the male.

Chestnut-sided WarblerChestnut-sided WarblerFirst-year Male


The distinctive black mask makes the male Common Yellowthroat look like the Lone Ranger of the bird world.  I have read that this bird was once known as an Olive-colored Yellow-throated Wren.

Common YellowthroatCommon YellowthroatAdult Male (Spring)


In the fall, an adult, male, Common Yellowthroat will look very similar to a spring adult but with browner flanks.  When you see a Common Yellowthroat like the one in the image below, the dirty cheeks or faint mask tells us it is a first year male.

Common YellowthroatCommon YellowthroatMale (Fall)


The heavy black streaking on the yellow breast and sides of the male Magnolia Warbler really stands out against the spring greenery.

Magnolia WarblerMagnolia WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


This is definitely a first fall, immature, Magnolia Warbler but which gender?  You can see the light gray streaking on its chest.  The first fall female has very little streaking on the chest but I don't have a photo of a male to compare.  I'm going to leave this ID as "an immature".

Magnolia WarblerMagnolia Warbler


This is definitely the blue-gray head, yellow throat, olive-green back, and white eyering of a male Nashville Warbler.  If you look carefully, you can slightly see the chestnut patch on his crown.

Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


The fall Nashville Warbler is duller overall.  The immature and females will have more white in their throat and chest.  Based on the amount of yellow remaining on the chest, I'm going to call this a male Nashville Warbler.

Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerMale (fall)


The Northern Parula is one of the smallest warblers but they make up for it with their beautiful plumage.  I'm not even going to bore you describing all the different colors on this bird.  A female is similar but overall duller than the male.  The black and chestnut colored chestband of the male Northern Parula, pictured below, is more prominent than on the female. Northern ParulaNorthern ParulaAdult Male (Spring)


The fall, male and female Northern Parula have plumage very similar to spring, only duller.  An immature female lacks a chestband.  The bird in the photo below has a faint chestband so I'm going to say he's a first fall male.

Northern ParulaNorthern Parula


The gray head, dark eyeline, white eyebrow, white underparts, and greenish back are some of the identifying marks of a Tennessee Warbler.  I found this one hanging upside down in a Hemlock tree searching for invertebrates.

Tennessee WarblerTennessee WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


Fall adults are very similar of spring adults.  What makes this a hard one is fall females and immatures cannot reliably be identified in the fall.  The Tennessee Warbler in the photo below could be a fall female or a first fall male or female.

Tennessee WarblerTennessee Warbler


The Yellow-rumped Warbler is one of the first warblers you will see in the spring.  The bright yellow rump and sides coupled with the blue-gray back and black streaked chest, makes him one of the most identifiable birds in the spring.

Yellow-rumped WarblerYellow-rumped WarblerAdult Male (Spring)


Fall adult and immature Yellow-rumped Warblers are similar to spring females but with an overall wash of brown.  Immature females will not have yellow on her sides so that tells me this is an adult female or an immature male.  Incidentally, the Yellow-rumped Warbler is the most abundant warbler in our fall migration.

Yellow-rumped WarblerYellow-rumped WarblerMale


Wow, now that I finished this photo blog I'm more confused on a couple species of these birds.  Oh well, right or wrong, it's fun to try to identify them.

Until next time,



Greg Norrell(non-registered)
Awesome series of songbird photos, and very informative. Crisp and vivid.
Willard Hill(non-registered)
Awesome photos and excellent information, Dan. I am going to be coming back to this post and studying it a lot.
Paul Staniszewski(non-registered)
As usual, great article and photographs. Thanks for sharing.
Jim Weixel(non-registered)
Beautiful photos!
Wow, Dan, great photos. I am horrible at separating out the warblers! Great job with all the descriptions!
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