April: Palm Warbler
“Which would you prefer – a snowy getaway to a cozy Canadian chalet or a luxury hotel stay on the beaches of Key West?”
Ask anyone that question and they would probably give you a quick answer. Whether their ideal vacation includes either snow or sand, skis or surfboards, or sweaters or sunscreen, most people know what they like when it comes to a getaway. Ask this April’s bird of the month which they would pick, and the choice would be just as easy. Warm climates are its choice, and in fact, this small aviator makes an annual trip to the sunshine state every year. However, this bird isn’t quite like the rest of us when it comes to the lengths it will go to make that trip happen.
April of course ushers in a new bird of the month – the Palm Warbler! With a name like palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum) you can understand why this bird loves the tropics. And it very much does love the warmer temperatures of the southeastern most points of the Unites States. But what many people underestimate about this bird is its ability to cover massive amounts of airspace to arrive at its wintertime home.
The Palm Warbler is a small bird, no more than 5.5 inches long with a wingspan of a little over 8 inches. Yet, for its size it has the capability to travel to opposite ends of North America. During breeding season, palm warblers will spend much of their time in the boreal forests of northern Canada where an astonishing 98% of the entire species is born and raised. Billions of these beautiful yellow birds migrate north right around this time of year to raise the new generation of warblers, so April marks the last encore of these birds that you will see until October. These journeys sometimes total over 2,000 miles, from the far reaches of Canada’s Northwest Territories to the wetlands of Florida and other states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. So the next time you think the flight from Philly to Miami is lengthy, just think about the palm warbler’s journey!
Confirming a palm warbler sighting is relatively easy. These birds are typically not as skittish as most birds their size, so you should have a moment to identify it if you think you’ve spotted one. You will also have the most luck looking down to find this warbler, as it spends most of its time foraging on the ground, wagging its tail feathers up and down. Typically, that is the best way to identify it, but of course look for its signature yellow feathers. Bright yellow on the belly and throat, a bit of a duller yellow on the back, and burnt orange on its crown, the palm warbler’s coloration is rather unique amongst other songbirds in this area. While there is a western subspecies that is a bit paler on its belly, don’t worry about mixing it up with its eastern counterpart – the western subset of birds migrate through the Mississippi valley.
Creating a home for these birds is incredibly important these days. I mentioned that the boreal forests of Canada are the hatching grounds for almost all the palm warbler population – sustaining those forests is a critical means of keeping this bird alive and thriving. Those forests, coined “North America’s bird nursery,” are essential to nearly 400 species of birds, most of which then migrate south, too. Scientists have found that the nesting sites for this species coincide with much of Canada’s peatland habitats, which are large swaths of wetland and overgrowth that store massive amounts of carbon in their terrestrial reservoirs. Damaging peatlands emits carbon back into the atmosphere, so we find ourselves at an intersection where preserving the Palm Warbler’s native breeding grounds also helps us mitigate climate change as well. Many times, our own interests align with the livelihoods of the species that we live alongside, and it is no different here!
For more information about the Palm Warbler, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for advice on what types of feeders may attract this warbler or other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips, resources, and photographs.
photo credit: W. Reaume