What kinds of warblers can you find in California?
I’m always amazed at the variety of colors, sizes, and songs of warblers in California. It seems impossible that all these little vocalists are related!
Whether you’re a casual observer in your local woods or an avid birder expanding your life list, warblers are a welcome sight (and sound!) on a hike.
12 Warblers in California:
- The range maps below were generously shared with permission from Birds of the World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!
#1. Yellow-Rumped Warbler
- Setophaga coronata
- Adults are 4.7 to 5.5 inches long and weigh 12 to 13 grams.
- Gray, with white wing bars and black on the chest. Patches on the rump and under the wings are yellow.
Yellow-Rumped Warblers are named for the bright yellow patch above their tails.
There are two subspecies of this warbler in California. They are closely related but can be distinguished by their throat patch, which is yellow in Audubon’s Warblers and white in Myrtle Warblers.
They are an active species known for catching insects in midair. During winter, they visit feeders with sunflower seeds, raisins, suet, and peanut butter. They also eat winter berries.
Yellow-Rumped Warblers are the most versatile foragers of all warblers in California.
They often search for food in trees but will venture to the ground to forage in leaf debris, and they’ve been known to pick through seaweed in coastal areas!
Listen for the Yellow-Rumped Warbler’s loud, clear song, which sounds like “tsee-tsee-TSEE-TSEE-tsee.” It starts soft at the beginning, gets louder in the middle, and then ends quietly.
#2. Wilson’s Warbler
- Cardellina pusilla
- Adults are 3.9 to 4.7 inches long and weigh 5 to 10 grams.
- Greenish and yellow coloring across the body, with gray-brown wings. Males have a black cap.
The males of this species also have a unique feature that makes them easy to spot. Their black cap is small and round, resembling a toupee! Females may have dark spots or a greenish wash on their heads, but only the males have the black cap.
Unlike other warblers in California, Wilson’s Warblers are more comfortable on the ground or in the forest understory. This makes them easier to spot without craning your neck! They often nest on the ground, concealed in shrubs at forest edges.
Wilson’s Warblers make a high-pitched “tchee-tchee-tchee-tchee” noise when singing. It’s quick and repeated often.
#3. American Yellow Warbler
- Setophaga petechia
- Adults are 3.9 to 7.1 inches long and weigh 7 to 25 grams.
- Lemon-yellow across the whole body, with light chestnut streaks on the chest. Males are somewhat brighter than females.
Listen for this species in moist forests of small trees. Its particular favorite nesting habitat is willow groves.
American Yellow Warblers are frequent victims of brood parasitic Brown-headed Cowbirds, who lay their eggs inside the nest of these warblers! But they have a unique way of combating this. They’re known to build a new nest directly on top of their old one, smothering their eggs in addition to the cowbirds’ eggs. As a result, researchers have found nests up to six layers deep!
With its bright yellow coloring and relatively large population, this is one warbler you shouldn’t have trouble finding. The song of the American Yellow Warbler is said to sound like “sweet, sweet, sweet; I’m so sweet!”
#4. Orange-Crowned Warbler
- Leiothlypis celata
- Adults are 4.8 to 5.3 inches tall and weigh an average of 9 grams.
- Their coloring is mottled yellow-green and gray, with gray wing bars.
Unless you’re fortunate and highly observant, you may never see the orange patch that gives the Orange-Crowned Warbler its name! It’s only visible when the “crest” feathers are raised, so catching a glimpse of this tiny bit of color is nearly impossible.
Its high, trilling song lasts about one second and is repeated often. It dips in pitch slightly at the end.
#5. Nashville Warbler
- Leiothlypis ruficapilla
- Adults are 4.3-5.1 inches long and weigh up to 13.9 grams.
- Their coloring is yellow below with gray upperparts and a white patch near the legs.
Nashville Warblers have two completely separate breeding areas that don’t overlap! The western population was once considered a distinct species, called the Calaveras Warbler, and generally has a brighter yellow color with a larger white patch.
Nashville Warblers are one of the longest-lived warblers in California. The oldest known individual was aged ten years and two months!
One way to identify the Nashville Warbler is to think of a beverage often enjoyed in Nashville; its song sounds like “sipa sipa sipa sipa tea-tea-tea-tea!” 🙂
#6. Common Yellowthroat
- Geothlypis trichas
- Adults are 4.3 to 5.1 inches long and weigh an average of 8.5 grams.
- Males and females have distinctly different coloring; although both sexes are yellow and gray, males have a black mask on the eyes that sets them apart.
One look at a male Common Yellowthroat will tell you why this species is also called the Yellow Bandit! The males’ distinctive black eye markings set it apart from other warblers in California.
Like most warblers, Common Yellowthroats migrate at night during the fall. Nighttime migration helps warblers avoid predators and poor weather conditions like excessive heat and wind.
An advantage for bird enthusiasts is that these species are much easier to spot during migration while resting during the day! With a bit of patience, you might also catch a flock in migration at night, visible against a full moon.
Common Yellowthroats have a distinctive song that’s easy to recognize. Listen for “witchety-witchety-witchety” repeated up to 300 times an hour!
#7. MacGillivray’s Warbler
- Geothlypis tolmiei
- Adults are 3.9 to 5.9 inches long and weigh an average of 14.5 grams.
- Coloring is yellow to olive green on the body, with a blue-gray hood.
- Males are brighter in color, with a black patch on the eye. Females lack the black patch and have a lighter gray hood.
They move in sudden, bursting hops along the forest floor. MacGillivray’s Warblers definitely aren’t the most agile birds you’ll see!
They’re quite easy to spot during migration, resting in dense thickets during the day. Their cheerful call and bright patterned coloring make them a welcome sight on a hike.
The MacGillivray’s Warbler song is trilling and high, with an inflection near the middle: “jeet jeet JEET jeet jeet.”
#8. Townsend’s Warbler
- Setophaga townsendi
- Adults are 4.5 to 5 inches long and weigh an average of 8.8 grams.
- Black, white, and yellow coloring on both males and females. Their cheek patch is black in males, and dark olive in females.
Look for this species in mature conifer woods with brushy undergrowth. During the fall migration and over winter, you may attract Townsend’s Warblers to your feeders when the temperature is below freezing. Offer high-energy foods like suet, peanut butter, and mealworms.
Listen for their buzzy, trilling song, which has been said to have a dreamy, sweet quality.
#9. Black-Throated Gray Warbler
- Setophaga nigrescens
- Adults are up to 5.1 inches long and weigh an average of 8.5 grams.
- They are gray with black streaks and a white underside. They have a single yellow dot in the corner of the eye.
Though they aren’t as well-studied as other warblers in California, they can be recognized by their yellow eye dot and black and white streaky coloring. Females are smaller, plumper, and have larger heads than males.
Even though Black-throated Gray Warblers are approachable and easy to observe, almost nothing aside from their appearance is known about them.
If you don’t live in its range but think you’ve spotted one of these distinctive birds, you’re probably right! Black-Throated Gray Warblers live west of the Rocky Mountains, but a few get blown off course every year and end up in the eastern US!
Listen for Black-Throated Gray Warblers singing their “zeedle zeedle zeedle zeet-chee” song.
#10. Hermit Warbler
- Setophaga occidentalis
- Adults are up to 5.5 inches long and weigh 8 to 14 grams.
- Dark gray with a yellow head. The underside is a lighter gray than the back and wings. Females have a white throat, and males have a black throat.
You’re most likely to see Hermit Warblers in pine, spruce, or fir trees in mature conifer forests. Although their name implies they might be hard to spot, it’s more a matter of looking in the right place!
This species prefers the very tops of tall conifer trees, so be prepared to look up a lot if you want to find this little bird. You may also have luck on mountain trails that sit eye-level with trees.
Hermit Warbler songs are high, buzzing notes that rise in pitch at the end. As a result, they can sound like “wee-too-wee-too-wee-too-wheeeee.”
#11. Virginia’s Warbler
- Leiothlypis virginiae
- Adults are 4 to 4.5 inches long.
- Their coloring is dusty gray with a white eye-ring.
Look for a quick hopping motion to identify Virginia’s Warblers in California.
They also frequently bob their tails up and down white foraging.
Their gray coloring and white undersides are marked with a bright yellow patch on the chest and under the tail. Virginia’s Warblers are often mistaken for Colima Warblers, which are rarer and harder to spot. The yellow patches on this species set it apart from the Colima Warbler, and it’s much more abundant within its range.
Their song is a clear “swee-swee-swee” that becomes slightly slurred near the end.
#12. Lucy’s Warbler
- Leiothlypis luciae
- Adults are 3.5 to 4.7 inches long and weigh up to 8 grams.
- Their coloring is pale gray with a whitish belly, a white eye-ring, and a reddish wash at the base of the tail.
Lucy’s Warblers are the smallest warblers in California!
Their diminutive size and pale coloring make them hard to identify in the wild. Look for the rusty red patch at the base of their tails, which is the marking used by ornithologists to identify this species in the field.
Though their natural habitat is mesquite bosques and forested washes in desert climates, they have been known to frequent backyards during mating season. Lucy’s Warblers are one of only two warbler species that will use nest boxes. If you’re looking to attract this species to your backyard, consider a box with two exits and a triangular shape.
Their musical, trilling song would be a welcome addition to any bird lover’s backyard soundtrack! It’s a series of short, sweet notes sounding like “eh-eh-eh-eh-eh.”
Do you need help identifying or attracting warblers in California?
Here are a few resources that can help!
How many of these warblers have you seen before in California?
Leave a comment below!
To learn more about birds in California, check out my other guides!
29 Types of WATER BIRDS That Live in California(Ducks, herons, loons, etc.)
24 Types of BIRDS OF PREY That are Found in California! (Hawks, owls, eagles, etc.)