Warblers of Utopia

Yellow Warbler

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Above is a fall male Yellow Warbler. In breeding plumage the streaks are bright scarlet red.

First we'll bore you to tears with some warbler talk, and if or when you can't take it, scroll through the pictures.   :) What good is a warbler? You might not notice them much but if you removed them you would sure see and feel the difference. This is what they do all year:

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler doing what warblers do best (it ain't warblin'!),
eating 'worms', caterpillars that is... (digiscope image)

Warblers are many people's favorite birds. Stunning beauty, fast action, endless variety, amazing lives, most with long migrations, and in fall, identification challenges. Most don't really warble very well, but their songs are favorites, each usually with A and B songs, plus a selection of call notes.... imagine 55 chip notes to learn! How exciting can it get!?!   Each chip slightly different in its own special way, when learned may offer the best most diagnostic field mark one could ask for.  The thrill of it all!

Here we'll show a few of them, and might even include some photos taken elsewhere to better illustrate them. About 40 of North America's 55 species are known from the upper Sabinal River drainage area. Lost Maples to Clayton Grade, centered by Utopia. Only about 20 and change occur in any given year, if you are lucky. I have seen 34 species (plus Audubon's) at Utopia Park (in 15 yrs.). With its 30 years of spring birder coverage Lost Maples shows 33 species of warblers on its list. Nearly HALF of them (15) have been seen only once, they are accidental, less than 20 species are reported annually there. The flip side is the most common nesting warbler there is Golden-cheeked.

Most of the warbler diversity here is migrants, and that is far better in spring than fall. Only a very few types winter here. The biggest single day diversity I had here was a late season cold front on May 2, 2011, with 21 species around Utopia, most at the park.  That is a once in fifteen years or more event, any day you find 10 species locally here ya done real good. For me, being here listening every day and looking a few days a week, over 15 years, my spring averages about 16 species over the passage, fall about 13.5 species. One spring (2011) I saw 30 species locally.

The most common warbler in Utopia seen by non-birders is of course the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Small numbers winter around town and can be seen in most yards. There are two types, subspecies now, formerly seperate species. The eastern Myrtle type is most of what we have, a few of the western Audubon's type (yellow throat) are often around, as well as the occasional (regular) hybrid or intergrade. They are present from later October to March, a few into April often in breeding plumage, which are generally migrants from further south passing through, not the ones that spent the winter locally. The winter plumage is fairly dull. They are often in the streets eating run-over pecans in Nov. and December.

Myrtle Warbler

A winter plumaged Myrtle Warbler. Some have yellow patches
on the side of breast (esp. ad.male) and all have a bright
yellow patch on the rump obvious when they fly away.

Myrtle Warbler

Here is the yellow rump it is named for.

Note there is a Utopia Park birdlist page amongst which is that site's warbler list. There is also a page with a the whole local area birdlist (Utopia and vicinity) in which all the warblers known locally are listed. On both lists status is given for each species, often with frequency of occurrence or dates for rarity records. Here are the links:

Birds of Utopia Park
Birds of Utopia

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat, the bird that perhaps has defied taxonomic understanding as well as any breeding North American species. It has been put with warblers for some time, but it is not one. I wondered why it was put with them when I was 5 years old. We cover it here, since it has been grouped with them for so long and likely is so in your books. As of summer 2017 the AOS (formerly AOU - American Ornithological Union) has given it its own family, allegedly nearest blackbirds. Pfffft. A fairly common breeder locally, heard more easily than seen, and often sings (actually makes loud chattering noises and whistles) at night, for which more often than not the Mockingbird takes the heat. They are the only bird species here I have seen eating Red Harvester or Leaf Cutter ants.


We only have a few nesting species of warblers locally, 4 regular annual breeders (so not counting Chat). Then add 3 species of toe-holder colonists that are perhaps wishing and hoping they could breed, probably trying and maybe they are. Of course most have at least heard of the hill country premier headliner, the Golden-cheeked Warbler due to its endangered (threatened) status. Though widespread locally, it is very micro-habitat specific and best seen at Lost Maples SNA. Seeable mid-March through June, though some present through July, rarely to early August, they can be tough late in season. It has its own page of photos and discussion.
Golden-cheeked Warbler

Golden-cheeked Warbler
Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Edwards Plateau's most endemic
bird species, it breeds nowhere else. The female makes the nest
almost completely out of the peeling bark of the Ashe Juniper,
so which is a little cedar chest cup. It is quite the fancy warbler.

Other warblers nesting there (Lost Maples) and other headwater stream habitats locally like Big Springs over the divide at Frio River headwaters, are Louisiana Waterthrush, and Black-and-white Warbler. Some Black-and-whites nest along Sabinal River (and Frio) where extensive mixed deciduous patches. Then anywhere along the big rivers in the area in tall Cypress trees there are nesting Yellow-throated Warbler. Of a vocally distinct flavor, and which is a ball moss specialist here. Edwardsplateauensis I call it. Finally, the last regular nesting 'former warbler' is Yellow-breasted Chat which uses brushy areas either in the riparian flood zone, or around fields and woodland edges.

A note on the Yellow-throated Warbler song type here. All across America, found in the entire eastern half, Yellow-throated Warblers sing essentially the same song, a descending Canyon Wren like clear whistled down scale run: slee slee slee slee slee slee slee slee slee. Sometimes with a high thicker TIK note at the end for flourish. Here, in this westernmost extension of the species range, at least on the Medina, Sabinal, Frio, Nueces and Guadalupe Rivers, they sing a a very different song. A lazy modulation between two frequencies, with a very different ending. Some might say tonally more like between a Hooded and Chestnut- sided Warbler, or even a Yellow-rumped Warbler. So quite very unlike all the other Yellow-throated Warblers in the U.S. It is sort of a slow lazy "we see we see we SEE you two", or, "li-lu-li-lu-li-lu-LI-lu-lu", with no chip at the end. No beautiful thinly whistled cascading downscale half-steps run. A simple lower-pitched thicker heavier two frequency flatline modulation.

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler

The line of seperation of this vocally distinct population is a map that has never been drawn. When I asked about it on Texbirds I got a bunch of quizzical stares, apparently no one had noticed these bird's distinct song type here before. I am surprised Oberholser missed this, considering things like Bexar Brown Thrasher, but dead birds don't sing. Some of these Yellow-throated can also show orange on the lower throat. Most often seen and brightest in late spring and early summer. It seems to be acquired by wear, and then wears (molts?) away quickly. I do not know if the other (eastern birds) show this ever or not, I have never seen or heard of it. I have seen it most in later June and earliest July, but a few times earlier in spring. I suspect it is males only, probably older ones. It can be a large squarish orange patch as bright as a Blackburnian, on lower throat to upper breast.

Here the species is abundant, territories ca. 200-400 linear feet of river gallery forest, and are edge to edge. It is a Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata) specialist, feeding heavilly and nesting in it. Nesting is usually high in the Bald Cypress that line the major rivers, in a clump of ball moss. It does nest away from the river and Cypresses (miles away) but only in live-oak mottes that are heavily infested with Ball Moss. It was not a breeder at Lost Maples in 2000-2007, and virtually accidental then. Since then it has colonized and several pairs are nesting there now since 2012 or so. Up to a dozen singing males may be present in spring the last few years including at least a couple with orange throats. This is a remarkable expansion into an area they absolutely were not using to breed prior. The prime river corridor habitat must be saturated, and producing very well.
Yellow-throated Warbler

Most do not show the orange and are just yellow most of the time.
On some it is a big patch covering lower throat to upper breast,
the same color as a Blackburnian Warbler.

Black-and-white Warbler

First summer male Black-and-white Warbler, a bark specialist that works the trunks and large branches of trees.

In the borderline irregular breeder category, there are three other warblers perhaps trying to breed locally. There are what seem to be nesting Northern Parula across the divide from Lost Maples at Big Springs, the Frio river headwaters, discovered by Tony Gallucci. They used to be a less than annual spring migrant on the Sabinal River.

Historically there were no known summering Northern Parulas along the Frio or Sabinal Rivers.  They only occur as rare migrants or trolling males in April or May. Tropical Parula seemed more regular at Concan than Northern for example. The above mentioned probable nesting Northern Parula are way above Leakey in a unique exceptionally lush headwaters micro-habitat (where the Pearl Beer advert photo that was used for decades was taken) quite unlike the Frio or Sabinal gallery forest habitats along their corridors. One year there was a territorial Northern at Utopia Park for a month singing. Kathy and I once had a Northern Parula north of town in spring, a migrant, singing a perfect Yellow-throated Warbler song. It never gave a typical Parula song. Song is learned. It was probably from Tony's birds at Big Spring where the nesting Parula are surrounded by nesting singing Yellow-throated Warblers. It was a 'sorta Sutton's Warbler'.

In 2015 a mated pair plus a single male Northern Parula were territorial at Utopia on the River, 2 miles south of Utopia. The pair appeared to have nested, being present over 6 weeks on territory. After they departed the unmated male stayed another week singing and then left. Though I missed the week when the young must have come out, they surely bred along the Sabinal River in 2015.

Then territorial singing male Tropical Parula are nearly annual along the big south-draining Edwards Plateau rivers in April and May. The Frio around Concan seems best but also the Nueces, Devils, and once even on the Sabinal River, some are territorial annually, mostly trolling males. I am not sure if still true, but until fairly recently, no local (hill country) breeding is yet known or proven. Though hybrid Tropical x Northern Parulas are being seen, so surely both are breeding, taking what mates they can find. One Tropical sung at Utopia on the River for 6 weeks one year. There is a Lost Maples spring record, another spring singer was right near our current place along the river a couple miles south of town. My only winter record is at Utopia Park. You have to triple check all Parula here for signs of impurity. Any given bird is about even chances of being one species as the other, plus, you have to rule out an intergrade.

In 2006-7 a PAIR of Rufous-capped Warbler were resident at Concan until a 3-day ice storm. There are other local records at Chalk Bluff Pk. in NW Uvalde Co., a pair on the Devil's River, I saw one at North Thunder Creek in the 'hay house' yard, and in late September 2015 I found one at Lost Maples which was widely seen for three weeks. It should be expected to continue attempts at colonization, as the Tropical Parula is.

So three additional species of warblers have toeholds, sorta, locally, as extremely low density colonizers and presumed attempting breeders. I don't think a nest has yet been found in the state for the Rufous-capped but a juvenile was seen near Austin once. Hybrid Parulas are known from the Devil's River at the west end of the plateau, and somewhere a hundred miles or so NW of us as well. Any suspected instance of breeding of these toe-holders requires good documentation. Surely the Rufous-capped and Tropical Parula have nested in the hill country, but we need some pix of it. The consistency of occurrence the last decade during breeding season indicates nesting.


Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler is another common migrant warbler in Utopia. The streaks on the underparts
of breeding plumaged males are bright red.

For spring warbler migration, Nashville Warbler is the only abundant species locally. Yellow-rumped (mostly Myrtle, some Audubon's), and Orange-crowned, might be the next two most numerous, and could qualify as common migrant species. Though they also winter here (just a very few Orange-crowned), big obvious waves of them move through in early spring. Their migration out of the area in spring is mostly before the main regular migrant warbler passage. As their fall arrival is after the main bulk of other warbler migrant's passage. Then Yellow Warbler is the next most common transient warbler.

Yellow Warbler

A first fall (juv. or imm.) Yellow Warbler.

Wilson's and Black-throated Green are 5th and 6th most common and Black-and-white 7th. Of these 7 species multiples might be found on the best day of passage each spring. After that it gets slim pickens quickly, and nothing could be considered common. Mourning Warbler is regular, a few in spring, more in fall. You can see a few in a day in fall, but a few to several pass through every spring too. Then perhaps Northern Waterthrush is next most regular, a couple or few are seen most spring and fall passage seasons. American Redstart might be the next most regular, but is not a sure thing every spring, and very rare in fall.

This is not migrant warbler heaven, with its low diversity of generally inland or overland migrants. There is no focal point of geographics or habitat (concentration factor). It takes work to see 15 species in a spring. You also need luck to see 20 species in a spring migration season, and a quarter of those will likely be "only one individual seen" species.

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler is the most common migrant warbler in Utopia or San Antonio for that matter. The nashville is the unit of measurement for warbler migration here. "today warbler movement measured 14 nashvilles, etc."  This is a fall immature with pale throat, adults have yellow throats.

The lack of concentration factor, where a billion acres all look the same from the sky, a tree everywhere, no matter where the bird looks, especially shows in fall when besides Nashville and Yellow Warbler, seeing multiples of almost anything is unusual. Besides those two, some Wilson's and Mourning, anything else is a good bird here in fall. The bulk of the fall passage is in Aug. and Sept., by early Oct. it is the last drips of trickle. Besides the departing local nesters and the above mentioned four, very few warblers pass through the area (detectably) in fall until late October or November when the Yellow-rumped Warblers arrive. Orange-crowned are never numerous until later in October too. It should be noted there are rarely some September Orange-crowned, which appear to be western Gray-headed (orestera) Orange-crowns. Some years there are low numbers of Common Yellowthroats, but other years you barely see a few.

Yellow Warbler

This is a fall adult female Yellow Warbler at our bird bath.
Much nicer not shooting through window and an old rusty screen.
The bright lines on breast and throat are reflection from
the ripples it just made bobbing down into the water.


In winter usually there are 3 species of warblers; Yellow-rumped (Myrtle far far outnumbers Audubon's types ranging 10-20 to 1), a few Orange-crowned, and usually at least a few or some Pine Warbler. Most winters there will be some Pine Warblers along any drainage corridor with some trees of size, especially at Garner S.P.. But are along all major wooded drainages (Sabinal, Frio, Leona, etc.), usually just a few, but a couple to four in a standard winter passerine flock of Myrtle Warbler, Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrow flocks (esp. at Garner St. Pk.) is not uncommon. I had 9 in a single flock in and adjacent to our yard winter of 2013-14. One male returned three winters to our yard. During the coldest spells eating millet off the patio, slummin' it with the Chipping Sparrows. Most warblers are highly insectivorous, and only those that can eat other things like berries, or seeds, can winter northward usually.

A couple vagrant winter warblers have occurred recently, first an adult female Black-and-white Warbler wintered for 5 years at Utopia Park. Other than single day CBC records, it was seemingly the first long-term full winter stay, and first returning winterer, documented on the Edwards Plateau. And then it came back four more years. That was pretty good. I have one wintering record of a Yellow-throated Warbler, which of note, is the only one I have ever heard that sang the typical eastern Yellow-throated Warbler song here. So we know it was not from here. Then winter of 2014-15 I found the first documented overwinting Louisiana Waterthrush on the Edwards Plateau. That bird returned two more winters! I have one winter record of a Common Yellowthroat. Most of the wintering insectivorous passerines here depend on a winter hatching Mayfly (Ephemeroptera) that is usually numerous along river or creek edges warmer days without wind all winter.

Here is another recent vagrant wintering warbler. This might be the
first documented overwintering on the plateau of a Wilson's Warbler.
It was at Utopia Park Dec. 2018 to March 2019. The orange lores and
forehead indicate one of the western races.

Here are a few poor pictures of some of the warblers found here ...

Mourning Warbler are actually one of the more regular migrants here,
but are usually only seen one at a time. This is a female.
One singing male I recorded here was identified as the eastern song type.
It far far outnumbers MacGillivray's, which is accidental in fall
and rare but semi-regular in spring here. Taken through window and screen.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat, male - usually down low in vegetation near water.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler - Some are named for the hardest part to see.
Almost all will show the white at the bend of the wing (marginal coverts) as this bird.
The eastern celata subspecies is the type here, orestera is very rare.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler will use hummer feeders in winter.
Note face pattern of dark trans-ocular line breaking narrow eye-ring,
with pale line over eye. Note diffuse dusky streaks on breast. The
reddish tones on right half of underparts are an artifact of feeder reflection.

Painted Bunting

Not an Orange-crowned Warbler, but an immature Painted Bunting. Which is what I think all the August Orange-crowned Warbler reports really are. Critically study the bill shape and structure. Note compared to the Orange-crowned Warblers above the plumage is very very similar, green above, dull greenish-yellow below.


Orange-crowned Warbler foraging for millet during a freeze.

Pine Warbler Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler, adult right, immature left, is regular in low numbers in winter. Pine Warbler

The other end of our repeat offender (taken different year).
Mostly present Dec.-Feb., sometimes later Nov. and earliest March.

Myrtle Warbler

"Myrtle" form of Yellow-rumped Warbler, mostly in breeding plumage.
Warblers are often overhead and this is how you see them.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler
Is it too soon to tell you about warbler neck?
It is a malady of warbler watchers from craning too much.
This Protho is just craning at the dude with the camera.


Black-throated Green Warbler, the closest relative of the Golden-cheeked,
occurs mostly as a migrant in spring. It is olive green above like a female Golden-cheeked.
The full black throat and breast indicates adult male, in which a Golden-cheeked
is black above, hence much more bold and impressive in appearance.

Rufous-capped Warbler

Rufous-capped Warbler

Rufous-capped Warbler

Rufous-capped Warbler

Tropical Parula

Tropical Parula, a rarity locally


Golden-cheeked Warbler, first spring male.

Golden-cheeked Warbler

Golden-cheeked Warbler male feeding fledgling (taken through telescope from safe distance)

Townsend's Warbler Townsend's Warbler

Townsend's Warbler at our bird bath Sept. 25, 2013


This is the adult male Townsend's Warbler Kathy and I found
near HQ at Lost Maples SNA Dec. 2, 2018. Sorry it is fuzzy, it shows
the bird for the record, was a miracle to get an image. I got six
with nuthin' but fuzzy junipers, one nice sharp one with its
head turned away, and this. Note it has a prey item at the tip of
bill, looks like a small spider maybe, the only reason it slowed
down enough for me to get a pic.

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler, male at Utopia Park Aug 9-18, 2009.
Accidental in fall in west half of Texas. (taken through binocs)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Just under a quarter ounce and just over 4" of pure energy,
the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is not a warbler, but often with them in winter.

Yellow-breasted Chat

Everybody's favorite former warbler, that never was a warbler,
Yellow-breasted Chat. This is a female.

Black-and-white Warbler

This is a Black-and-white Warbler, with a tail not fully grown out.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush, juvenile

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush, adult, note grayish tone on back, contrasting with
pure brown head and wings, Northern never shows this appearance.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush, adult

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush, adult

One last chip note, on Louisiana Waterthrush identification and status here. Some field guides stress or tout the pink buff flanks and two-toned (bicolored) eye-line as being critical to ID it. Note in the two above photos, perhaps closer than the average field view, these things are not apparent.  Such is often if not typically the case here in spring to early summer. Not all Lousiana show the buffy flank color in late spring to early summer, as it wears off over winter, causing many mis-identified reports of Northern Waterthrush at Lost Maples in spring due to lack of buffy flanks. Buffy flanks go from absent in late spring and early summer, to boldly apparent in late summer when they complete pre-basic molt around late July or August usually.

Also note contrary to some published accounts (Dunn and Garrett Peterson Warbler Field Guide), any Louisiana Waterthrush after early Sept. does not need documentation here.  In fact in early Septmember here at say Lost Maples, or Big Springs above Leakey, I want proof you saw a Northern. Which does occur, but is not much more likely is the point. Labor Day weekend is about when the first Northerns show up, but Louisiana can still be present, and Northern are scarce here in fall. Regular, but scarce.

Louisiana have been detected present and singing into September locally.  Tony Gallucci had them one year on Nature Quest at Big Springs singing on Sept 15 still, and another year on a NQ walk he and I had it singing there on Sept. 21. So, many elsewhere may have left there territories by early Sept., and some of these do too, but some of these are often still nesting again in August, and at mid-September can sometimes be still singing on territory. Migrant Louisiana probably from further north can also occur in September.

Below is another example of Louisiana Waterthrush here past early September, this one wintered at Utopia Park. Frankly a wintering waterthrush here on plateau seems more likely to be Louisiana than Northern. I heard of a prior report of them in winter but it was not a photographed record so few believed it is my take on it.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Apparently the first ever documented over-wintering Louisiana Waterthrush on the Edwards Plateau, present at Utopia Park from early December (at least) 2014 to early March, 2015. This image acquired Jan. 25, 2015. It returned for the winter of 2015-2016, and returned again for winter of 2016-17 but was last seen at end of December.

Nashville Warbler

Have a Nash day!

Louisiana Waterthrush

The End

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