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Identifying Orange-crowned Warbler and Tennessee Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler, adult. April in Riverside County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

The wood-warblers, as a group, are among our most colorful and strikingly patterned birds. But there are exceptions, and one of the most notable is the Orange-crowned Warbler. It’s a widespread bird that can be found practically everywhere in North America at some seasons, but its plain appearance makes it easy to overlook.

The breeding range extends from western Alaska to Quebec and Labrador, south in the western mountains to New Mexico and Arizona, and south along the Pacific Coast through California. It winters mainly in the southern U.S. and Mexico, with a few south to Guatemala. In many areas of the southern states, it’s the second or third most likely warbler to be seen in midwinter.

Orange-crowned Warblers are much less numerous in the east than in the west. Although they occur as migrants from coast to coast, east of the Mississippi they often elude birders in migration. This is partly because of timing: In the east, they tend to migrate earlier in spring and later in fall than most warblers. Even as far north as the Great Lakes, their fall migration is mainly in late September and October. They often forage low in brushy areas, even in stands of goldenrods, where birders might not be looking for warblers.

Their lack of obvious field marks can also make them easy to overlook, espe​cially in fall, when many other warblers also wear relatively drab plumages. The species most likely to be confused with Orange-crown — Tennessee Warbler — is quite variable in fall. It usually has a fairly plain face with a pale eyebrow, or supercilium, a little more sharply defined than that of the Orange-crown. It is often dull yellow on the throat and chest, and it shows one or two very narrow pale wing bars. Its undertail coverts, usually white, are sometimes washed with yellow. However, it never has this area brighter yellow than the rest of the

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Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman is an expert birder and naturalist, a talented artist and photographer, a world traveler, and the author of many books about birds and other wildlife. His column “ID Tips” appears in every issue of BirdWatching. Kenn is also a field editor for Audubon Magazine and a contributor to Birds and Blooms. His work first appeared in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching) in April 1988. Visit his website, Kaufman Field Guides.

Kenn Kaufman on social media

Brian E. Small

Brian E. Small

Brian Small is a Los Angeles-based bird and nature photographer whose photos appear in the “ID Tips” column in every issue of BirdWatching. His work has been published in Time, The New York Times, Audubon, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation, and many other publications. His photos also illustrate many field guides, including Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, a series of state bird identification guides published with the American Birding Association, and his own Eastern and Western photographic field guides to the birds of North America published in 2009 with author Paul Sterry and Princeton University Press.

Brian E. Small on social media