Orange-crowned Warbler: Stealth Migrant Subspecies

Unlike most members of the family Parulidae, Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) is a species that is essentially devoid of field marks. It offers a study in the differences between greenish yellow and yellowish green, with some occasional olive and gray tossed in. It may or may not show wingbars, and may or may not show very diffuse streaking on the underparts. 


This Orange-crowned Warbler, photographed in low light on Skinner Butte in Eugene, Oregon 29 April 2010, presents an appearance consistent with the subspecies lutescens, which accounts for most of the Orange-crowned Warblers that pass through western Oregon each spring. Note the yellow eye arcs, uniform yellow underparts with diffuse dusky greenish streaking, and the general lack of gray tones in its plumage. Photo by Dave Irons

For all their drabness, I find Orange-crowned Warblers intriguing, in part because they are the first "migrant" warblers to reach Oregon each spring; Yellow-rumped Warblers winter here in abundance. Orange-crowneds are conspicuous migrants along the Pacific Coast of North America, second only to Yellow-rumped (among warbler species) in terms of the numbers one is likely encounter. From early April through early May they will generally be the most numerous species at many migrant traps, particularly on the cool overcast days that create fallouts.


This Orange-crowned Warbler, photographed in bright sun, also shows characteristics consistent with the lutescens subspecies. Note the fairly uniform yellow coloration below, yellow eye arcs, and lack of gray tones on the head. It does not show any obvious streaking below. Photo by Paul Rentz

What I find most interesting about this species is the variation it displays. The local breeding subspecies (V. c. lutescens) is the brightest of the three primary subspecies of Orange-crowned Warbler.  They can be almost lemon yellow below and rich leafy green above. As adults, they have yellow eye arcs that nearly connect to create a broken eyering and they often look a bit streaked below. Most of the Orange-crowneds that I see each spring are of this subspecies. They can be quite variable in appearance, with presumed females tending to look less yellow below. 


This lutescens was on Skinner Butte, Eugene, Oregon 29 April 2010. Its duller overall coloration suggests and lack of obvious orange tinge on the crown suggest that it is a female. Note that it is lacking in gray tones, has yellow eye arcs, and shows weak streaking below. Photo by Dave Irons

The duller and more northerly V. c. celata breeds across boreal Canada and Alaska and is presumed to be a low-density spring and fall migrant along the west coast. This subspecies displays a lot of gray tones and dull olive in its plumage. The yellow undertail coverts and vent often stand out as the brightest feathers on the bird. They seem to have less yellow (often creamy to off-white) eye arcs that form a near complete eyering. They tend to look unstreaked below. The bulk of this population is presumed to migrate east of the Rocky Mountains. The degree to which this subspecies migrates north along the Pacific Coast is at best poorly understood. Dunn and Garrett (1997) discuss celata as a fall migrant along the Pacific Coast, but do not describe its status as a spring migrant through that region.

A third subspecies (V. c. orestera) breeds in the Intermountain West northward along the Canadian Rockies to northern British Columbia. This subspecies is generally described as being more brightly colored than celata and tends to look more streaked below than the other two subspecies discussed here. Their most conspicuous feature is a very gray head that contrasts noticeably with the yellow underparts and green back. The have fairly bright yellow throats that are constrained and framed by the gray in the auriculars, which well down on the lower face. They also have whitish eye arcs. Fall immatures suggest a dull immature McGillivray's Warbler. They are somewhat regular fall migrants along the West Coast (Dunn and Garrett 1997) and I've seen a handful of spring migrant Orange-crowneds in western Oregon that have shown characteristics consistent with this subspecies. 


This Orange-crowned, photographed at the Chico Basin Ranch, Peublo Co., Colorado on 17 May 2008, is presumed to be of the orestera subspecies, based on range and the combination of uniform bright yellow underparts contrasting with a grayer head (creates a hooded look). It also shows whitish eye arcs. Photo by Larry Semo.

In Oregon, we get two distinct waves of migrant Orange-crowneds. The early birds, which arrive in late March and peak during the first two weeks of April, appear to be universally lutescens. They show no obvious gray and only minimal olive tones in their mostly bright yellowish-green plumage. Then, from late April until mid-May, we get a secondary wave of Orange-crowneds that are much duller overall. They often have distinctly gray heads and lots of gray tones on their backs. Their underparts are pale greenish yellow and usually look a bit washed out. The gray tones make them look mostly dull olive-green. In many cases their overall appearance looks intermediate between lutescens and photos of celata taken within their known range. Surely intergrades occur and it may be that many of the duller, grayer spring birds in western Oregon are intergrades. 


This bird, photographed on Skinner Butte in Eugene, Oregon 29 April 2010, is a classic example of the duller-colored Orange-crowned Warblers that pass through western Oregon during late April and early May. Its combination of paler underparts, significant gray on the head and upper back, and whitish eye arcs are suggestive of the subspecies celata, but this bird is greener than most of the presumed celata that I've seen. Photo by Dave Irons

My presumption, given the appearance of these birds and the timing of their passage, is that they are celata or at least celata/lutescens intergrades. However, to date there is no authoritative work on how to separate the three subspecies discussed here in the field. While I think that most of the duller Orange-crowned I see from late April on are probably celata, I have (as mentioned above) seen a few birds that were suggestive of orestera. 

I can't offer any definitive answers to the questions posed above, but I will continue be to take pictures of as many spring Orange-crowneds as I can in an effort to better quantify which subspecies are passing through Oregon in the Spring. A couple of long-time Oregon banders tell me that they have captured individuals that were keyed out as celata (Mike Patterson and Dennis Vroman pers. comm.). The photo below shows a presumed celata banded in Josephine Co. Oregon. 


This bird, photographed in Josephine Co., Oregon on 10 May 1992, was presumed to be a celata based on the overall dull plumage, pale underparts, extensive gray on head and nape, white eye arcs, and brighter yellow undertail (can't be seen in this image). Photo by Dennis Vroman

Hopefully, this discussion inspires others to take a closer look at the Orange-crowned Warblers and to photo-document celata-like birds along the West Coast. At this point, there are more questions than answers. 


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I can add to the mix that I’ve encountered some fairly tight flocks of Orange-crowns in early May along the n. California coast among which none sings. When I see a late push like this involving birds giving only occasional “tsit” notes, I wonder if they may be females. // When I first began pulling field guides from library shelves in third grade, I learned the Pacific form of this bird as the Lutescent Warbler. Birders beginning today don’t have to puzzle through the named subspecific forms which would appear to be species. An example is the Golden Pileolated Warbler, which, were one to use Gabrielson and Jewett’s Birds of Oregon (1940), would be stated to be a common “species” in the state—whereas Wilson’s Warbler is less common. Huh?? I had to learn that they were discussing two forms of the same species, and the “non-Pileolated” race was the form then called simply Wilson’s Warbler. Woodpeckers, screech-owls, and other birds of broad distribution and marked subspecific characteristics also were puzzlers. Long live the Black-eared Nuthatch and Little Flycatcher…


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Sure that we have Orange Crowned Warblers near my wifes office. From the pictures shown our sightings look more like the celeta. Several have been around during the month of January here in Medford, Oregon. I did not see the Orange crest in any of the posted photos, but the birds we have seen have a very bright orange crest when they tilt head down. I have seen more than one with 1/4th inch wide by 3/4th inch long orange crest. My wife says she has seen some with larger perhaps 1/2" wide neon orange crown that really got her attention. I assume this is where the name comes from, even though the photos on this page do not show that marking. I am guessing the bird needs to get light just right on head for the crown to jump out, as most of the time the birds looked much like the sub-species in the photo taken on Skinner’s Butte in Eugene. I also notice a light almost white bar on the warbler’s wing that was not in the Eugene photo. The one’s we were watching liked to point their tails in a more upward angle. A very pretty little bird !


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