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Blackpoll Warbler

Setophaga striata ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The sharply marked Blackpoll Warbler is nature’s hearing test, with a high-pitched, almost inaudible song that floats through the boreal forests of Canada. This long-distance athlete weighs less than half an ounce yet makes the longest overwater journey of any songbird—nearly 1,800 miles nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean to its wintering grounds. In the fall, this black-and-white warbler molts into yellow-green plumage and loses its black cap. Although still numerous, it has lost an estimated 88% of its population in the last 40 years.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.5 in
14 cm
Wingspan
8.3–9.1 in
21–23 cm
Weight
0.4–0.5 oz
12–13 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Tennessee Warbler, smaller than a Red-eyed Vireo.
Other Names
  • Paruline rayée (French)
  • Chipe gorra negra (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The song of the Blackpoll Warbler will put your hearing to the test. Most birds sing at a frequency between 1,000 Hz and 8,000 Hz, but the Blackpoll’s song can reach 10,000 Hz, even higher than the song of a Brown Creeper.
  • Blackpoll Warblers are long-distance athletes and they hold the record for the longest overwater flight for a songbird. During the fall, these half-ounce warblers fly nonstop for up to 3 days, covering on average over 1,800 miles over the Atlantic Ocean to reach their wintering grounds in Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, and northern South America. Such a journey requires that they eat enough before they leave to double their body mass.
  • Food and endurance is not all it takes for the Blackpoll Warbler to complete its epic journey, they also take advantage of the prevailing winds following cold fronts to give them a boost as they head south.
  • Blackpoll Warblers fly incredible distances—especially the ones that nest in western Canada, farthest from the wintering grounds. Those birds tend to have longer wings than those nesting in eastern Canada. Longer wings may mean that they can fly faster or more efficiently to reach their distant wintering grounds.
  • Children often learn their surroundings by exploring, and young Blackpoll Warblers may do the same thing. Researchers found that before young Blackpoll Warblers headed south they spent time exploring the neighborhood perhaps to help them find a territory the following summer.
  • The oldest recorded Blackpoll Warbler was a male, and at least 8 years, 1 month old, when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alaska in 2006. He had been banded in the same state in 1999.

Habitat


Forest

Blackpoll Warblers breed in black spruce and tamarack forests in Canada's boreal forests. In western Canada, they also use thickets of spruce, alder, and willow. In northern New England they breed in wet areas with evergreen trees. During migration they stop over in scrubby thickets and mature evergreen and deciduous forests. On their wintering grounds east of the Andes in South America, they occur in forest edges and second-growth forests below 10,000 feet.

Food


Insects

Blackpoll Warblers eat mainly spiders and insects such as caterpillars, gnats, lice, ants, beetles, mosquitoes, and flies. They tend to forage at eye level and above, picking insects off the branches of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. During fall migration they also eat fruit including honeysuckle, pokeberry, and yew.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.7–2 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.2–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
11–12 days
Nestling Period
8–10 days
Egg Description
Whitish to pale green with brown and purplish blotches around the larger end.
Condition at Hatching
Naked and helpless with closed eyes.
Nest Description

The female builds a cup-shaped nest out of twigs and lichen. She shapes the inner cup with her body, twisting from side to side until the finer grasses and hair used to line the nest are in place. It takes her about 3–4 days to complete a nest. The outside of the nest is about 4 inches across and 2.5 inches tall. The inner cup is about 2 inches across and 1 inch deep.

Nest Placement

Tree

The female moves among spruce and fir trees looking for a place to nest. She tries out different spots as if she were building a nest, but without adding any nesting material. The spot she chooses is usually near the trunk of a spruce or fir tree. Nest height ranges from 0.5–30 feet above the ground.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Blackpoll Warblers move slowly along branches in evergreen trees looking for insects. They tend to forage primarily from eye level up to the canopy in the interior branches of evergreen trees, especially during the summer in their northern range. Males start singing during spring migration and continue to sing from high perches at all hours of the day on the breeding grounds. In the spring, males arrive north before females and almost immediately start setting up their territories. Females arrive 2–3 days later, forming a pair with a male soon after. Males follow females closely while they are building the nest and laying eggs. Males and females maintain their bond typically only during the breeding season, but some return to breed with the same mates in the following year. Although mostly monogamous some males breed with more than one female. During the breeding season they are generally solitary, but join mixed-species flocks during the nonbreeding season.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Blackpoll Warblers are numerous throughout their range, but their numbers have declined severely in recent decades. Much of their far-northern breeding range lies outside of the area covered by the North American Breeding Bird Survey, making it hard to estimate population trends precisely. Nevertheless, the NABBS records suggest an extreme decline of nearly 5% per year from 1966–2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 92% during that time period. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 60 million with 76% breeding in Canada, and 24% in the U.S. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Blackpoll Warbler are not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, but the 2014 State of the Birds Report lists the species as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, indicating that populations have declined by more than 50% in the last 40 years. Partners in Flight estimates that if current trends continue, an additional 50% of the Blackpoll Warbler population will be lost in as little as 16 years. Although the remote boreal forest regions where Blackpoll Warblers breed are still relatively intact, logging and extractive industries are rapidly expanding and threatened warbler habitat. More than 180 million acres of the boreal forest has been impacted by extractive industries. In the long-term the boreal forest is also vulnerable to climate change. The epic transoceanic journey to the wintering grounds is risky due to bad weather that can make passage difficult, urban lights that confuse migrating birds, and lighted towers. In one day in Florida 586 Blackpolls died after striking a tower. On the wintering grounds these birds are vulnerable to habitat loss.

Credits

Range Map Help

Blackpoll Warbler Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. In the fall Blackpoll Warblers fly nonstop from the Eastern Seaboard over the Atlantic Ocean to their wintering grounds in northern South America and the Caribbean. In the spring, they don't make the epic transoceanic flight, instead they stop over in the Caribbean Islands and continue north over land to their breeding grounds in the boreal forest.

Backyard Tips

Create a bird friendly backyard to provide foraging habitat for migrating Blackpoll Warblers and other birds. Head on over to Habitat Network to learn more about birdscaping your backyard.

Find This Bird

These birds breed so far north that the best times for most people to see them are in spring and fall, as they migrate through North America. Spring is arguably the best time—males' colors and patterns are crisp and sharp, and the birds will be traveling overland and singing as they move north. Despite their affinity for evergreen trees on the breeding grounds they tend to forage in deciduous trees and shrubs during migration. Listen intently for their high-pitched song, as it is sometimes easy to overlook. You can also spot Blackpoll Warblers during fall migration, but they take a different route than in spring and are unlikely to be seen south of North Carolina. They look much different in fall and rarely sing—but they are much more numerous since all the young of the year are on their way south in addition to the adults. Look for them in mixed flocks of migrating warblers.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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