For the entire 20 years I have lived in the Pacific Northwest I have been a member of a listserver called Tweeters, an internet gathering for birders to post their sightings, requests for information, and exchange information about what is being seen and where. This year that site has been lit up with sightings of what is normally a rare bird for our area, the Palm Warbler. Seattle Audubon’s Bird Web shows it in only one area, the coast, and even that is given a “rare” sighting, though a friend of mine says they used to be fairly common out by the marina in Ocean Shores. So when three were seen at the Hoquiam sewage ponds and two seen in Ocean Shores, I decided to feature the bird here in hopes some of you will go looking, and maybe find one of these little rarities for yourself. This photo by Hank Heiberg shows what the bird looks like out here at this time of year.
General Description: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes this bird as similar to an American Pipit in it’s upright posture, slightly larger size than most warblers, and habit of ground feeding. They are a drab brown overall, with undertail coverts of yellow, white corners on the tail when flying, a brown stripe through the eyes, and pale stripes on their breast. They also pump their tail as they move about. They are 4.7 to 5.5 inches in length with a wingspan of 7.9 to 8.3 inches and weighing 0.3 to 0.5 ounces. Breeding plumage birds have rufous crowns and yellow throats.
Habitat: Palm Warblers can be found on the edges of forests, in hedgerows, thickets, fence rows, and brushy areas near water. They seem to like the dense stands of Scots Broom we have out here.
Behavior: The near-constant tail pumping is one good way to identify this bird on the ground where it spends most of its time. In winter and during migration they may join mixed flocks of other ground-dwelling birds or in the lower branches of brush and trees. They do sing and announce their breeding readiness though from the highest branches of a tree.
Diet: Palm Warblers are insect eaters but also eat seeds and berries such as bayberry, sea grape, and hawthorn when available.
Nesting: Nearly all Palm Warblers breed in Canada. The male is first on the territory and sings to protect his territory and attract a mate. The monogamous pair builds a nest on the ground protected by moss or grasses and at the foot of small spruce trees or shrubs. It is cup-shaped and made of grass, sedges, rootlets and ferns and lined with finer grasses, feathers and hair. They both incubate four to five eggs for about 12 days. Both feed the young which typically fledge at about 12 days. The young can fly short distances within a few days of fledging. The pair will then generally raise another brood.
Migration: Palm Warblers are most often found in Washington during fall migration and early winter. Eastern migrating birds leave their breeding territory in Canada and travel to the southeastern United States for the winter, but the maps show a very narrow band of non-breeding birds all along the coast of Oregon and California.
Conservation Status: Palm Warblers are fairly common within their normal range. Their breeding territory is in the boreal forests of Canada and may be impacted by extractive industries such as logging, tar sands oil development, mining, peat harvesting, and climate change. For now they are in remote areas still out of the reach of most disturbances. One bizarre fact: they are one of the most frequently killed species at lighted towers across the United States.
When and Where to Find on Grays Harbor: As I mentioned earlier, several birds have been seen at the Hoquiam sewage lagoon, on the berm separating the two eastern-most ponds. They were found in the willows there. Another good spot to check is the Scots Broom across from the marina in Ocean Shores. Watch for that pumping tail and the flashes of pale yellow. Good luck!