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Tennessee Warbler vs. Orange-crowned Warbler

Alex Lamoreaux|

During the first few weeks of October, here in Pennsylvania, the diversity of warbler species is declining rapidly. By the third and fourth week of this month pretty much only Yellow-rumped Warblers and Palm Warblers will be around in decent numbers, while most other species have made their way to the southern states, and some already are down to Central and South America. However, this time of the year there are still a few Tennessee Warblers around, as they make their long trek south from Canada’s boreal forests. In addition, there is also the chance to see the Orange-crowned Warbler, a species that is much harder to come by in Pennsylvania. When Orange-crowns are seen here, it is usually later in the season, since this species is a late migrant and also somewhat tolerant of colder conditions. Both of these species are typically seen at or below eye-level compared to the other warblers. They both like to climb around in shrubs, searching and probing leaves for insects. Furthermore, both species are a dull yellowish-green color during fall migration.  The fact that these two species are very closely related and are similar in appearance and habits, can lead to quite a bit of confusion in the field.

This collection of photos show just how similar the birds can look and act. All of the photos below show the same individual Tennessee Warbler (taken in Pennsylvania) and the same individual Orange-crowned Warbler (taken in Maryland), in various postures and angles. Both individuals are first fall birds. The birds are climbing around in brush and appear more chunky and heavy-set than other warblers. Both birds have sharp and straight gray bills and plain wings, lacking any wing bars or other obvious features. This overall drab appearance is what can make them look especially similar, particularly at a quick glance. Typically, the Tennessee Warbler is whitish throughout its underside, however sometimes their undersides can be washed green and their undertail coverts can occasionally be yellowish. Orange-crowned Warblers always show a green wash to their undersides and always show yellowish-green undertail coverts that are either as bright or brighter than the rest of the body.

Probably the single best field mark to go off of, when trying to separate these two species is by looking at the markings on the face. The Tennessee Warbler always shows a whitish supercilium that extends from the lores, straight back to the end of its facial disk. The coloration on the head of the Tennessee Warbler does not contrast with the coloration on the bird’s back. On the other hand, the Orange-crowned Warbler lacks the pale supercilium, and instead shows very obvious white eye-arcs above and below its eye (broken eye-ring), as well as a grayish head coloration that contrasts with its greenish body. Hopefully this collection of photos will help you to pick out the two species more accurately and with more confidence in the field!

Broad-side View:

Tennessee Warbler - first fall; Note the whitish wash throughout the underside as well as the pale supercilium. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Orange-crowned Warbler - first fall; Note the greenish wash throughout the underside, the gray head, and the white eye-arcs. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Dorsal View:

Tennessee Warbler - first fall; Note the pale supercilium and the fact that the head coloration does not contrast with the back coloration. Also note the whitish wash on what can be seen of the undertail coverts. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Orange-crowned Warbler - first fall; Note the white eye-arcs, and the grayish head and greenish body. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Broad-side, Undertail View:

Tennessee Warbler - first fall; Note the whitish wash throughout the bird's underside, particularly the undertail coverts. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Orange-crowned Warbler - first fall; Note the grayish head contrasting with greenish body as well as the greenish undertail coverts. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Front View:

Tennessee Warbler - first fall; Note the whitish belly (which can sometimes be green) and the facial features. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Orange-crowned Warbler - first fall; Note the white eye-arcs, grayish head, and greenish belly. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Percentage of eBird checklists reporting Tennessee and Orange-crowned Warblers in Pennsylvania.

Note: The information in this post concerning Orange-crowned Warblers only applies to the celata subspecies, which is the only subspecies occurring in eastern North America. The various subspecies found in western North America are typically quite different in coloration.

About the Author

Alex Lamoreaux

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Alex Lamoreaux has been an avid birder and naturalist since he was a youngster, growing up exploring the farmland and forested ridges near Hershey, Pennsylvania. He attended Hershey High School and Penn State University. Alex has worked on wildlife research projects, ranging from Whimbrel along the coast of Virginia to Yellow-billed Cuckoos in the desert southwest. Alex loves to share his knowledge of nature, as well as help to bring the birding community together to share the enjoyment that spending time in nature has to offer. Alex has helped to organize and coordinate birding events in his home state of Pennsylvania and beyond. He has traveled extensively throughout North America, Central America, and South Africa and is currently pursuing nature tour guiding, as well as continuing to refine his passion for wildlife photography.Contact Info for Alex Lamoreaux: aslamoreaux@gmail.com (717) 943-7086

  • Nice post!  Orange-crowned is my favorite warbler.  Not the flashiest (by any means), but I heard one singing for the first time this spring and I’ve come across them more times in the past year than I think I’m supposed to.  It’s plumage just flows from a dull olive to gray and blurry yellow, with a brighter yellow undertail.  Once you see the broken eye-ring, you know what you’re looking at.  It’s like the realization of finding the black cap on a Yellow Warbler in the Spring, but much subtler.  It’s really difficult to try to romanticize such a drab warbler, but I’ll do it anyway.  

  • mdreibelbis

    Thanks! That was really helpful to read and see the differences.

  • Nice comparison photos.  Maybe now I’ll find a Tennessee in AZ this fall!

  • Nicholas Lund

    great post.  Bird blogs should have more like this.

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  • Matthew W.

    Checking in from Wisconsin – Excellent post – 2 years after the original post and it is still relevant and helpful. Keep up the great work guys!!! Feel much more confident after reviewing your tips and photos!