Cape May Warbler

Setophaga tigrina


Early Spring Date: April 28
Late Spring Date: May 24
Most Frequently Seen: May 5-14

Cape May Warblers are one of the most highly-sought warbler species each spring at Monticello Park. Their numbers are heavily dependent on the spruce budworms in the boreal (far northern) forests where they breed. Each year when the budworms are scarce, the warblers tend to be scarce the next spring. When the budworms are plentiful, the warblers are plentiful the next year. In 2005, no Cape May Warblers were seen or heard at Monticello. In 2009, single sightings occurred on only three different days, and this could have been the same bird. In other years, Cape May Warblers have been more common. In 2017, multiple sightings were recorded on 18 days. They are most likely to be seen during the second week in May.

Where to See Them in the Park

Cape May Warblers can be difficult to find, because they typically stay in the canopy. During the spring, they often forage in trees on the knoll near the yard with the azaleas. They frequently go into the stream and then preen in a nearby bush.

Physical Description


Cape May Warbler Male
Male - Photo by Michael Pollack

The males are mostly yellow, with prominent black "tiger stripes" on the flanks. They have a brick-red patch on the cheek and a white patch on the wings. The cap is dark, and on some birds, appears to be black. They have a black line through their eye and a yellow line over it. The back is olive with faint black streaks.

Cape May Warbler Male
Male - Photo by Michael Pollack

Cape May Warblers are "yellow-rumped warblers", along with the Palm, Magnolia, and the warbler called the Yellow-rumped.

Cape May Warbler Males
Males - Photo by William Young

On rare occasions, more than one will go into the stream together.

Cape May Warbler Female
Female - Photo by Michael Pollack

Female Cape May Warblers can be difficult to identify. Rather than having a red cheek and a black cap, both the cheek and the cap are gray. Like the male, they have a white wing patch and a yellow rump. They are yellow below and have tiger stripes on their breast and sides. The tiger stripes are the best fieldmark.

Cape May Warbler Second-year Male
Second-year Male - Photo by Michael Pollack

Cape May Warblers who have an intermediate appearance are probably second-year males. The cheek is grayish-red. The white wing patch is not large, and the crown is grayish. The second-year birds have tiger stripes.

Vocalizations

The song of the Cape May Warbler is a high-pitched series of single notes, usually sung from the canopy — tink-tink-tink-tink-tink.

Hear the song of the Cape May Warbler.

Notes

Cape May Warblers were first described by Alexander Wilson in Cape May, New Jersey, but they are not commonly seen there. During the winter, they feed on nectar and small fruits, which they puncture with their sharp bill. They use their semi-tubular, brushy-tipped tongue for extracting nectar — an ability unique among warblers. Many songbird species change their diet during the winter when their energy demands are lower. A lot of energy is needed for migrating to breeding grounds and raising young, which is why their diet during the spring and summer is composed mostly of high-protein food such as insects and other arthropods. They do not use as much energy on their wintering grounds, so they can survive on food with less protein, including fruit and seeds.

Origin of Names

Common Names: Cape May because the first specimen was described in Cape May, New Jersey. The New World Warblers were named for their similar appearance to European warblers, to whom they are not related. Most of the New World warblers do not warble (sing continuously with notes that change frequently).
Genus Name: Setophaga means "moth eating".
Species Name: Tigrina means "striped like a tiger", from the streaks on the underparts.

Cape May Warbler video footage

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