Warblers of Summit Woods

By Jane Cormack, Bird Protection Quebec

Westmount’s Summit Woods is a hotspot for birds in migration. Each spring, significant numbers of warblers and other songbirds descend on this small forest in the heart of the city. It is a resting point en route from wintering grounds in South and Central America to the boreal forest where over 60 per cent of our warblers breed. It has always been important to Bird Protection Quebec (BPQ). One of the first achievements of our organization, back in 1917, was to have it declared as a bird sanctuary.

I have enjoyed these woods for the past several years, as long as I have been watching birds and trying to identify them. It’s always worthwhile and there are always surprises. The more I observe and learn about birds, the more fascinating they become.

To learn more about warblers,Warbler_Guide you can do no better than to turn to The Warbler Guide book and app, co-authored by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle. The book was published in 2013 by Princeton University Press. It received rave reviews and recently won the National Outdoor Book Award (NOBA). The Warbler Guide app was released for Apple iPhone and iPad early this year.

Traditional field guides generally show images of a bird from one side and point out one or two distinct features. With warblers, it’s really hard to get this angle. They are here for only a few weeks in spring; they are high up in the trees, hidden by a lot of leaves, and they move around a lot. When they come back in the fall, they look completely different and are no longer singing.

At any time of year, you may miss the diagnostic features and the song may not sound anything to you like the transliteration you have read.

The Warbler Guide adds pages of stunning photographs for each species, in all plumages. These are taken from as many angles as warblers are seen in the field. Comparison photos of similar birds from the same angles are found on the same page. Why flip through 10 pages of a guide in order to make an identification?

The book includes extensive and innovative work on identifying warblers by ear. Tom Stephenson has put a lot of thought into how people go about doing this. Although he has a strong background in music, he doesn’t feel that this is a requirement, or even particularly useful for learning bird vocalizations. Learning how to pay attention to bird song is something that can be taught. This is encouraging.

The first step is to have a vocabulary for describing it and a structure for thinking about it. There are three questions: Is the song rising or falling? Is it buzzy or clear? How many segments does it have?

Song of the Canada Warbler

Song of the Chestnut-sided Warbler

Song of the Magnolia Warbler

Song of the Northern Parula

Song of the Tennessee Warbler

The Warbler Guide app makes it easy to visualize and understand this. You can select any bird, using their “quick finders” and play several songs and calls, while looking at the sonograms. From there, you can easily make comparisons with other species. It also has a fun 3D feature. You can select a model and rotate it until it matches the position of the bird you saw in a tree a few seconds ago. You can add a second model and rotate both for comparison.

Alternatively, you can start with a blank image and build on it by adding features of the bird you have just seen, such as blue wings, a yellow chest, white wing bars, and the type of song. Select your bird from the results and look at it in 3D or as a flat image.

To learn more about The Warbler Guide book and app click: thewarblerguide.com


Scott Whittle has 20 years’ experience as a professional photographer and educator. He holds an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Although he has not been birding that long, he set a record, in 2008, of 350 birds in the New York State Big Year. In 2011, his and Tom’s digiscoping team won the World Series Cape Island Cup. With Tom, in 2014, he set the US record for a Photo Big Day. He lives in Cape May, NJ, where he leads workshops and pursues his passion for birds and photography.


Tom Stephenson developed his birding skills in high school under the tutelage of Dr. Arthur Allen of Cornell University. During college, he began to pursue a music career. He worked with several Grammy and Academy Award winners and performed with members of the NY Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His clients included the Grateful Dead, Phil Collins, and the FBI. He has donated many recordings of Eastern Himalayan rarities and other Asian species to Cornell’s Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, and has led groups across the U.S. and Asia. His articles and photographs appear in Birding, Birdwatcher’s Digest, Handbook of the Birds of the World, Handbook of the Mammals of the World, and Guide to the Birds of SE Brazil.

For details of our warbler walks, see http://pqspb.org/bpqpoq/events/

Jane Cormack

Jane Cormack is a Vice-President of Bird Protection Quebec (BPQ). She is the editor of the BPQ newsletter The Song Sparrow.

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  1. Deb

    I found a Tennessee Warbler in winter plumage in Montreal but did not know anything about birds so I gave him seeds when what he really needed was insects/worms. I bought him a cage but let him be free in my room. He tried to fly out of my window while I was out and when I got home, he was lifeless. I wish I would have brought him to an expert who could have made the right decision for him. His name was Cutie and I loved him dearly even if he was with me just for a day… My comment is that it is critical to properly identify lost or injured birds so that they get the right food and care and that healthy wild birds belong free in nature ♡

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