Hume’s Warbler and the ID issues

A peak inside the head of ….

John McLoughlin

Follow John’s explanation of his gut reaction of seeing and identifying the Hume’s Warbler at Flamborough this last week.

Hume's Warbler by Andrew Allport

Hume’s Warbler by Andrew Allport

Visit Andrew Allport’s website HERE

“As on the previous afternoon at the Lighthouse there was an arrival of winter thrushes and finches. However unlike the previous day, which had been, sunny and bright today was dull and overcast and the strong southeasterly blow continued.

As I was about to check a favoured little cliff top gulley I noticed a small gathering at the lighthouse wall. A mixed group of birders and walkers were looking intently into the garden. “Must have a Black Red” I thought and went over to check. Sure enough there was a Black Redstart on the tidy lawn, actually there is no cover in the garden for much else to appear. Exchanging pleasantries with a guy called Gerard he informed me that the elder bush I had been about to check moments before being distracted held a Pallas’s Warbler! We hurried back down the path whilst he expressed concerns about the birds’ true identity.

Almost immediately the warbler in question undertook a short aerial sally before returning to the said elder. It was actually a Yellow-browed Warbler! Something that Gerard had been trying to explain to me.

Something different about this one…

But there was something different about this Yellow-browed, something subtly but also very different. I had met this bird before and I exclaimed that it was actually a Hume’s Yellow-browed Warbler! What was it about the bird that made me feel confident in making such a quick declaration?

From the start I must admit to previous experience as I saw at least four birds in Yorkshire back in the nineties. The last birds I saw where two birds at Flamborough Head and at Spurn in late October 2003. More of the Spurn bird later 🙂

What do I see?

The bird is greeny grey above and whitish below it has a prominent supercilium and two distinct wing bars. It is a fresh bird with neat white tertial fringes and white tips to the primaries.

However the crown is dull and shows a distinct grey coronal stripe.

The mantle is green but suffused grey with a hint of a grey shawl and a grey wash on the scapulars.

Through binoculars the brightest part of the bird is actually in the wing… the fresh fringes to the flight feathers contrast with the duller upperparts.

Hume's Warbler, Flamborough, by Craig Thomas

Hume’s Warbler, Flamborough, by Craig Thomas

Look at the Face!

So what was it about this bird that convinced me that this was a humei? Well I once attended a lecture given by Lars Jonsson and he was talking about identifying birds and amongst the advice he gave I always remember one point. He said “look at the face” this is how we remember/recognise friends and acquaintances it seemed to make sense to me.

Back at Flamborough Head on this “rare” afternoon in late October I am looking at the face of this warbler and I recognise it. The face has an open expression so therefore is immediately different from other Yellow-broweds I have seen this autumn.

Key Features

This appearance is created by the following features:

  • The supercilia are distinct and creamy white but narrow in front of the eye
  • The eyestripe is more diffuse across the lores thus making the eye more prominent
  • The throat is also creamy white and contrasts with the rest of the sullied white underparts
  • The cheeks appear plain lacking the mottled effect shown by phylloscopus warblers.
  • Finally the bill was “spiky” and “crestlike”… dark almost blackish
  • Overall the bird was greeny grey but not dull like many winter humei but the brightest green tones appear in the closed wing … not in the mantle…see the various photos, e.g.  on RBA website
  • The soft parts are darker the bill has only the faintest of pale bases to lower mandible.
  • The legs are dark to not black but dark becoming paler around the toes but lacks pale “socks”.
  • It does show two prominent wing bars but this must be a feature of fresh humei and look closely and the bases of the secondaries below the greater covert bar are dark creating a shadow but I suggest that this is probably a variable feature.

Back to the 2003 Spurn bird which was trapped and ringed as a Yellow-browed but then we heard it call in the field!

Finally this bird was heard to call confirming the diagnosis!”

(confirmed by multiple observers keen t hear the right sounds!)

Hume's Warbler, Flamborough, by Craig Thomas

Hume’s Warbler, Flamborough, by Craig Thomas

and here’s me notebook from 1990:

Hume's Warbler 1990 (1 of 1)


2 thoughts on “Hume’s Warbler and the ID issues

  1. Owen

    How concrete are the calls these days? I’ve noted some discussion on what appears to be a far wider variability in both species than was previously suggested, as well as instances of individuals giving both YB and Hume’s calls.

    1. Martin Garner Post author

      Good Q Owen. Certainly a lot of intraspecific variation in Hume’s- plus which population to our vagrants come from. Not bottomed out on the subject for sure


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