Fall ID Tips: Blackpoll Warbler vs Bay Breasted Warbler

Fall warblers can be very confusing. Learn how to tell the difference between the blackpoll warbler and bay breasted warbler.

Everyone loves seeing all the beautiful warblers in their breeding colors during spring migration but, seeing fall warblers can be just as much fun. The only trouble can be that some of the birds will cause more of an identification challenge during this time of year. One of the most common challenges is deciding if you’ve seen a blackpoll warbler or a bay breasted warbler. Although you would never mistake these two species in the spring, it can be quite easy to do in the fall.

Here are a few tips to help you with your fall warbler identification.

ID Tips for Fall Blackpoll and Bay-breasted Warblers©Brian Zwiebel
Notice how the blackpoll warbler’s yellow legs stand out in good light.

Blackpoll Warbler

Both the blackpoll warbler and bay breasted warbler are yellowish overall and have two white wingbars, so those features aren’t going to be very helpful. On the blackpoll warbler, look for very light and blurry dark streaking on the sides and across the breast. Also, if you can get a look at the legs and feet and they have any yellow on them, you have a blackpoll warbler.

Shutterstock 1216632352 0001Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock
Adult male blackpoll warbler during spring migration

To make things even more confusing, blackpoll warblers molt into completely different plumage in the fall. During the breeding season, these birds look much different—the males are black and white with a black cap.

For me, blackpoll warblers have the craziest migration pattern of any of the warblers. Here’s a fascinating fact: Blackpoll warblers fly for an impressive 80+ hours nonstop during fall migration. Their epic trip from northern Canada to South America includes nearly 2,000 miles across the open water of the Atlantic Ocean.

After breeding across the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, the whole population migrates east towards the Atlantic Ocean. Once they reach the ocean, they will feed heavily in hopes of doubling their body weight and then take off and fly straight out over the open water heading east. They will rely on strong winds to push them south so that they can arc down to South America, at some points being closer to Africa than the American continents! Many of the birds will make landfall on the northeast coast of South America.

Their migration north in the spring will take them island hopping through the Caribbean and then through the central United States back to their breeding grounds in the north.

Yellow warbler vs goldfinch: Here’s how to tell the difference.

ID Tips for Fall Blackpoll and Bay-breasted Warblers@Brian Zwiebel
Bay breasted warblers have dark legs

Bay Breasted Warbler

Unlike the blackpoll warbler, the bay breasted warbler doesn’t show much streaking at all. Instead, many times it will show a slightly creamy or buffy color. Some individuals will even show a hint of the bay color they are named for. Also note that this species has entirely black/gray legs and feet.

bay-breasted warblerCourtesy Alisa Gerbec
Bay breasted warbler in breeding season plumage

Like the blackpoll warbler, this species does a seasonal costume change. In the breeding season, these warblers are mostly gray with a chestnut colored head, throat and sides.

Next, learn all about black-throated blue (and green!) warblers.

Rob Ripma
Rob is a lifelong Indiana resident and co-owner of Sabrewing Nature Tours. He has birded extensively throughout the Americas and also spent time birding in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Rob is past president of the board of the Amos Butler Audubon Society in Indianapolis (after leading the board as president for 6 years) and secretary for Ohio’s Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO). He also serves as the field trip coordinator for BSBO’s Biggest Week in American Birding annual event. Rob sat on the executive board of the Indiana Audubon Society for three years as treasurer and vice president. He is a co-founder of the Indiana Young Birders Club and speaks at a variety of organizations and schools about birds and birding to share his knowledge and experiences in the field. His leadership and expertise led to Rob working as the primary bird blogger for Birds & Blooms magazine from 2013-2017. Rob enjoys working with both new and experienced birders of all ages and believes that teaching people about birds will not only increase interest in birding but also help them better understand why we must work to protect them and their habitats. Additionally, he loves educating others about the positive impact nature tourism can have on local economies, especially in developing countries. This passion led to his involvement in the production of a PBS television program called, “Flight Path: The World of Migratory Birds,” where a crew accompanied him on a tour to Panama to highlight and bring to life the effect that birds and birding have on both the people that see them and those who work and live in areas visited by birders and nature lovers.