Leaf warbler ID made easy! Part I: Introduction

This entry was posted Monday, 24 September, 2012 at 5:52 pm

By Mousumi Ghosh

When I started birding seriously in the year 2005 after joining the Master’s course at the Wildlife Institute of India, I conveniently ignored every warbler I saw. Since visual identification was very difficult (given their frustratingly similar and drab appearances), I was happy enough to say that so-and-so bird was of a warblerish persuasion, and leave it at that. But then, as fate would have it, I wound up studying the wintering ecology of three species of leaf warblers in the Himalayan foothill forests of Himachal Pradesh for my MSc dissertation. While my primary motivation was to understand how they survive the winter sharing dwindling food resources, I now had to identify them accurately for my work to make any sense.

In most situations a bird in hand is worth two in the bush, but when it comes to identifying leaf warblers it is better to have a bird singing in the bushes than have even ten in your hand! This wisdom came to me from my supervisors Mr. Pratap Singh and Dr. Dhananjai Mohan, who taught me how to identify leaf warblers in the field from their calls and song.

These remarkable little birds belong to the family Phylloscopidae, whose members are dressed in various hues of dull green, yellow, grey and occasionally bright chestnut (as in the Chestnut-crowned Warbler). They are among the commonest species of European and Asian forests. The word Phylloscopus literally means ‘looking into the leaves’ and this aptly describes our industrious friends, who spend almost 75% of their waking hours searching for insects among the leaves. 

The genus is famed for its astounding diversity: more than 60 species of Phylloscopus are described. Most of them breed in the temperate areas of Europe and Asia. Despite weighing only 5-10g, some leaf warblers migrate over thousands of kilometres to arrive in their wintering quarters in the tropics of Africa and South Asia, including the Indian subcontinent. To cite an example, Hume’s Warbler (weighing just about 6 g) covers almost as much distance as the celebrated Siberian Crane (weighing 6 kg) to reach the plains of India from where it breeds in Siberia!

The same attributes which make them so difficult to identify (so many species, yet so similar in appearance) have made them one of the most well-studied groups of birds in the world. Within India, detailed studies of their breeding (in the Himalayas) and wintering ecology (Himalayan foothills, peninsular India) by Dr. Trevor Price and his students have revealed a great deal about these leaf warblers in both breeding and wintering seasons.

Read Part II of this series of articles on leaf warblers

12 Comments to Leaf warbler ID made easy! Part I: Introduction

  1. Shylaja Akkaraju says:

    September 25th, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Thank you Mousumi, for helping us identify and appreciate the “little brown birds”! Delightful article…please do keep it coming!

  2. Shobha says:

    September 27th, 2012 at 5:36 am

    Hi Mousumi

    Great Reading and would like to read more about it…there is a lot to learn from you guys as it is such an interesting field! Good Luck!

  3. Mousumi says:

    September 28th, 2012 at 2:58 am

    Thanks a lot! Tips on identifying these birds coming soon…

  4. Premkumar says:

    October 4th, 2012 at 1:41 am

    Well written and informative article on the tiny visitor …. I liked the 6g vs 6kgs part. Amazing little birds! Looking for more update, keep ’em coming.

  5. Sharad Apte says:

    October 10th, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    Calls of all leaf warbler is unique, though sound “chuk” but pitch speed differs in each species. I have recorded most of them. This season I shall confirm them and shall release for all birders as a reference key for id

  6. Dharmaraj Patil says:

    October 12th, 2012 at 4:15 am

    Its a good start to take warblerian knowledge to the commons. It would be good if you could share list of books/papers of Trevor Price on warblers.Thanks. With Best wishes.

  7. Karthik says:

    October 12th, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Hi Mousumi,

    thanks for this article, useful one. And look forward to the subsequent ones about this.


  8. Sarvjit singh sohi says:

    October 17th, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Hi Mousumi
    thanks for your very good articale

  9. Mousumi says:

    October 17th, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Thanks for your appreciation! Please check out the next part…

  10. migrantwatch says:

    October 19th, 2012 at 2:44 am

    Dear Dharmaraj, you can find many of Trevor Price’s writings on warblers using Aasheesh Pittie’s bibliography: http://www.southasiaornith.in


  11. Dr. Vidhin Kamble says:

    December 13th, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    Hi I am Dr. Vidhin Kamble Assist. Prof. Dept. of Zoology, Sangola College, Sangola Dist. Solapur (maharashtra India. have noticed Rosy starling during mid october. 2016. in Sangola region. this region is considered as drought prone area of Maharashtra. R. starling visit this region since last 3 years. This year i able to bring them to premises of my house. 100s of rosy starling visit my home at early morning for break fast. it was also noticed that, common myna become a local guide for them to visit feeding ground.
    I have captured videos of starlings at my home. please visit youtube link by entering key word Vidhin Kamble Sangola. these birds gave preference to noddles instead of grains.
    please reply.
    Dr. Vidhin Kamble

  12. admin says:

    December 14th, 2016 at 5:46 am

    Dear Sir, thank you for these very interesting observations. It would be wonderful if your observations could be recorded on a dedicated platform for this. As you may know, MigrantWatch has moved to the eBird platform — in which your bird observations and lists can be recorded. Please do take a look: http://ebird.org/content/india/

    Since observations from a large number of birdwatchers are aggregated on eBird, very interesting things can be done with the data. Two examples are below:
    1. Rosy Starling map
    2. Seasonal charts for Maharashtra.

    It would be great if you could join thousands of birdwatchers across the country in sharing your observations through eBird! Please write to this address if you have any further queries: skimmer@birdcount.in

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