According to my Birds of New Jersey and Birds of Eastern North America, the Palm Warbler isn’t a common bird to my region. Despite that fact, I have laid my eyes on a couple on my various walks. I guess the few I saw were in New Jersey on vacation.
There is definitely no way that I mistakenly identified this bird. With olive-yellow on its back, a bright yellow neck and belly and a chestnut brown cap on the top of its head, this bird is very difficult to confuse with any others. The impression of yellow overall was not so bright as that of the Yellow Warbler and the chestnut cap is very distinct as many other warblers with yellow bodies have black trimmings.
My first sighting of a Palm Warbler was by far the best. I was in the Meadowlands and the Warbler was on the ground behind a bush. The olive-yellow of its feathers made it stand out prominently and I was able to get photos while only being a few feet away. He wasn’t really upset by my presence, and continued to do his thing, including puffing up his feathers for a good cleaning.
My second and third sightings were both more fleeting, frantically trying to get a photo or two in while the bird was still in site. As with all Warblers, Palm Warblers are small, quick and always seem to be moving. They will sit on branches, but like an antsy child, they are always on the move. A bit to the left…move back where they started…hop up a branch to see if that is better…jump back down to the original spot…hop to the left. If many of the species of Warbler were not bright yellow, I don’t know if I would ever catch any of them on camera at all. My second sighting was again in New Jersey, at Garret Mountain Reservation and the third was while walking the Albany Pine Bush in upstate New York.
The Palm Warbler probably derived its name during its winters in Florida and the Caribbean. Most of the population summers in Northern Canada. They nest on the ground or on the lower level of trees, which may be why my first Palm Warbler was under a bush. They eat insects which they hunt on the ground and on trees.
So let this be a lesson to you. Field Guides are helpful tools, but your own powers of observation are also good. Sometimes Field Guides are wrong. Bird migrations and other natural annual occurrences are effected by weather, urban development and tons of other factors which can combine to change how birds behave and where they live. Don’t doubt what you think you saw, you might be right.