My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata

The blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata) is a New World warbler. Breeding males are mostly black and white. They have a prominent black cap, white cheeks and white wing bars. The blackpoll breeds in forests of northern North America, from Alaska, through most of Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England. They are a common migrant through much of North America. Come fall, they fly South to the Greater Antilles and the Northeastern coasts of South America in a non-stop long-distance migration over open water, averaging 2500 km, one of the longest distance non-stop overwater flights ever recorded for a migratory songbird. Rare vagrants to western Europe, they are one of the more frequent transatlantic passerine wanderers.

The blackpoll warbler is a fairly small bird which attains the weight of a ball point pen. However, it is one of the larger of the diverse genus Setophaga (formerly Dendroica). In the species, body length can vary from 12.5 to 15 cm (4.9 to 5.9 in) and wingspan can range from 20 to 25 cm (7.9 to 9.8 in). Body mass can vary from 9.7 to 21 g (0.34 to 0.74 oz), with an average bird anywhere between 12 and 15 g (0.42 and 0.53 oz). Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 6.6 to 8 cm (2.6 to 3.1 in), the tail is 4.5 to 5.4 cm (1.8 to 2.1 in), the bill is 0.8 to 1.2 cm (0.31 to 0.47 in) and the tarsus is 1.8 to 2 cm (0.71 to 0.79 in). The summer male blackpoll warblers have dark-streaked brown backs, white faces and black crowns. Their underparts are white with black streaks, and they display two white wing bars. The adult females essentially resemble washed-out versions of the summer males, and in particular, the females lack the strong head patterns, and their crowns and faces are shades of gray. Another outstanding physical characteristic of the species are the bright orange, pink legs.

Non-breeding birds of this species have greenish heads, dark-streaked greenish upperparts and yellowish breasts, with the yellow extending to the belly in young birds. Their wing bars are always present.

In the southern portion of their breeding range, blackpoll warblers can be found on the higher elevations of mountains in woodland or brushy areas. They also spend their summers on the wooded coastal islands of Maine and the Maritime Provinces. Farther north they have been reported throughout the boreal coniferous forest. Blackpolls breed nearer to the tundra than any other warbler.

Although fairly large for a warbler, blackpoll warblers are fairly easy to miss because of their relatively inactive foraging style and tendency to perch in dense foliage near the canopy of the trees. They are more often heard than seen, though their song is one of the highest pitched known. Their songs are simple repetitions of high tsi notes.

The blackpoll has a deliberate feeding style with occasional flitting, hovering and hawking around branches. They are primarily insectivorous. The species appears to be quite a generalist, preying on a great diversity of adult and larval insects and spiders. Documented insect prey for the species includes lice, locusts, cankerworms, mosquitoes, webworms, ants, termites, gnats, aphids and sawflies. It has been suggested that this species may be a spruce budworm specialist, but there is no obvious connection between population trends of the two species. The blackpoll will opt for berries in migration and during winter. They often forage high in trees, and sometimes catch insects while in flight.

Their breeding habitats are coniferous woodlands, especially those in which spruce trees grow. The bird’s breeding ranges extend to the taiga. Blackpoll warblers commonly nest in a relatively low site of a conifer. They lay 3–5 eggs in a cup-shaped nest, rarely up to 9. The eggs are incubated for around 12 days and the young leave the nest when they are only 10 days old, before they can fly well. Their parents feed them for a total of around two weeks. Mated females usually begin second nests right away and leave post-fledging parental duties to their mates. The high incidence of double brooding, coupled with and partly a function of low nest predation and parasitism rates, results in high annual productivity for this species.

The blackpoll warbler’s transoceanic flight has been the subject of over twenty-five scientific studies. Sources of data include radar observations, bird banding and weights taken, dead birds recovered from field sites and fatal obstacles. It is unknown if they feed on insects while in flight. Blackpoll warblers have the longest migration of any species of New World warbler. This is likely the reason that they are one of the later warblers to appear in spring migration, after one or more short overwater flights and a relatively prolonged movement overland after through North America anytime from early May to mid-June. The peak of their migration is in late May, when most warblers are on their breeding grounds.

In the fall the birds migrate from their breeding grounds across the northern latitudes. They converge on the Northeastern United States south to Virginia starting in mid-August. Most blackpolls fly directly from northeastern North America over the Atlantic Ocean to their winter range. Data from nocturnal accidents, banding stations and sightings have shown that blackpolls are rare autumn migrants south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, whereas north of Cape Hatteras they are common. Part of the fall migratory route of the blackpoll warbler is over the Atlantic Ocean from the northeastern United States to Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, or northern South America. Island stopovers at Bermuda and other places are evidence of migratory pathways. To accomplish this flight, the blackpoll warbler nearly doubles its body mass in staging areas and takes advantage of a shift in prevailing wind direction to direct it to its destination. When they fly southward over the Atlantic they burn, 0.08 g of fat every hour. This route averages 3,000 km (1,900 mi) over water, requiring a potentially nonstop flight of around 72 to 88 hours. They travel at a speed of about 27 mph (43 km/h). Blackpolls can weigh more than 20 g (0.71 oz) when they leave the United States and lose 4 or more grams by the time they reach South America. Some of the blackpolls land in Bermuda before going on. Some birds, often with lower body weights, do not make it.

Using a tiny light level geolocator biologists have proven that the black poll flies an average of 2540 km (2270 to 2770 km) non-stop over an average of 62 h, up to 3 days, corresponding to about 41 km/h. In 2013, 37 blackpolls from Vermont and Nova Scotia carried a miniaturized geolocator weighing 0.5 g with harness on their back. The device recorded light-levels, from which longitudes and latitudes could be estimated, and in 2014 the scientists recovered five of the original 37. Four of the five birds departed from western Nova Scotia between September 25 and October 21, and traveled at speeds between 10.7 and 13.4 meters per second. The study revealed that the spring migration overland and the autumn routes overwater were “dramatically different”. When the flight distance per body mass was compared to other birds, only the ruby-throated hummingbird might travel more kilometres per gram (estimated around 210–280 km/g vs. 233 km/g for blackpolls).

On to my photos:

These images were shot in the spring of 2018.

Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata, male


Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata, male


Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata, male


Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata, male


Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata, male


Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata, female


Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata, female


Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata, female


This is number 210 in my photo life list, only 140 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



15 responses

  1. Congratulations again, Jerry. Great shots of this attractive little warbler!


    January 23, 2019 at 8:11 pm

    • Thanks Clare! Hard to believe that it took me 3 or 4 years to get good photos of a male, when it is a common species around here.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 23, 2019 at 11:15 pm

  2. Good work.


    January 10, 2019 at 6:35 pm

  3. Another pretty bird…love the photos.


    January 10, 2019 at 1:05 pm

  4. Brilliant pictures, thank you.


    January 10, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    • Thank you Susan! It took me years to get the photos of the male, the females are easier to photograph.


      January 10, 2019 at 6:00 pm

  5. Pingback: Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata — Quiet Solo Pursuits |

  6. These are beautiful portraits of these birds, Jerry!


    January 10, 2019 at 10:49 am

  7. I have never seen this bird before. Your photos of it are superb, and the information contained in this post is top-notch. This year I will have to try to get some shots of them as they migrate through our region.


    January 10, 2019 at 9:28 am

    • Thanks Hien! The males in breeding plumage are hard to catch, they stay in tree tops most of the time, but it is a common species around here during the fall migration. Most of the information comes from Wikipedia which I edit and add more from All About Birds to what I get from Wikipedia.


      January 10, 2019 at 5:59 pm

  8. Great photos! I’ve had a hard time getting good shots of this bird.


    January 10, 2019 at 9:10 am

    • Thank you very much! It has taken me several years to get good photos of a male in breeding plumage, but I have many of the females, juveniles, and males in their fall colors.


      January 10, 2019 at 5:56 pm