It is Fall! Is it confusing?!

On September 22 this year, we will celebrate the Fall Equinox. It is the day when the sun crosses the celestial equator from North to South and the length of day and night is nearly equal. It typically marks the beginning of the Fall, although it should be noted that this is an astronomical season (i.e. based on celestial cues). Meteorological seasons would be based on – you guessed it – meteorological factors, like average temperatures, for example.

That’s why the other Equinox, the Spring Equinox, around March 20-22, doesn’t imply that flowers will burst in bloom in our Great White North, but simply that the length of day is, from that day forward, longer than night until the Summer Solstice. But no need to dwell too long in this pet peeve of mine!

Accordingly, temperatures this week at Cabot Head are a far cry from what one associates with the oncoming Fall season. It has been warm, very warm, bringing little movement of birds over the last few days.

However, on September 14, there were a few new arrivals: one Brown Creeper was caught in our nets, as well as one Blue-headed Vireo; the high-pitched little calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets were hear; and the first White-crowned Sparrows were observed (with one banded).

In late-Summer and early-Fall, bird populations swell with young (or Hatch-Year birds to use banding lingo), yielding mostly dishevelled-looking teenagers around, adding to the confusion. Or do they? It is well known that Fall is the time for “Confusing Fall Warblers” (CFW), dreaded by everyone!! Young in drab plumage, different plumage in Fall than Spring for the same species, look-alike species: so much confusion!!

I would beg to differ: with all due respect to R.T. Peterson, we should stop proclaiming that warblers in the Fall are “confusing”. Yes, Peterson was a giant in the birding world (The Giant?) and opened the eyes of many. But I wish that he never uttered these CFW words.

Of course, if we were to be transported back to the 1930’s, the Fall warblers would be confusing, given the optics and guide(s?) of the time. There was actually no field guide until Peterson created his own and I can only imagine what it was like to look through a pair of binoculars ca.1928…

However, now many bird watchers have access to good optics, like a pair of Svarowski binoculars (not an endorsement, more a wish list!), and guides such as “The Warbler Guide” ( which presents numerous pictures of warblers at every angle possible and in close-up to show details, I do not believe that Fall Warblers can still be “confusing”! Strong statement, I know, but I stand by it!

I do concede that a few species look very similar, most notably the duo Blackpoll and Bay-breasted Warblers. But paying close attention would reveal enough differences to tell them apart, even in the field. As always, rewards come through work. Maybe we are spoiled with the flashy, gorgeous plumage characteristics of Spring warblers and ignore everything else: shape, structure, behaviour, habitat, bill, legs, everything that we pay attention to for other groups of birds.

So, I would urge everyone to stop thinking in terms of “confusion” and more in terms of “paying attention” and opening our senses to subtle details which, ultimately, will make us better birders and more appreciative of what we have before us.

However, if you would like some truly confusing warblers in your life, I encourage you to peruse the Leaf Warblers (genus Phylloscopus) of the Old World: (and realize why European birders chuckle when they hear their North American counterparts complain about “Confusing Fall Warblers”).

Happy Fall birding!

Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis), the only Leaf Warbler whose breeding range extends into North America (in Alaska).

Photo taken along the Colville River, summer 2006.