The Hermit Warbler is largely migratory, with most individuals nesting in the northwestern U.S. and wintering in Mexico. Hermit Warblers occupy upland coniferous forests, but can be difficult to see because they spend most of their time in the canopy.
The Hermit Warbler’s nest is often difficult to locate and study high up in a coniferous tree, but there is one known record of nest parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird. Little is known about how long they live, but the oldest known Hermit Warbler was 4 years old.
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Description of the Hermit Warbler
The Hermit Warbler has gray or green upperparts, gray wings with two white wing bars, a mostly black throat, white underparts, and a mostly yellow head.
Males have a black throat and a nearly all-yellow head.
Females have a white-mottled, black throat and some green on the head.
Seasonal change in appearance
Fall and winter birds are quite similar in appearance, but may be duller.
Immatures are similar to fall adults.
Hermit Warblers inhabit coniferous forests. During migration, they also occur in deciduous woods.
Hermit Warblers eat insects.
Hermit Warblers forage actively among the upper foliage of trees.
Hermit Warblers breed along the northern west coast of the U.S. They winter in the westernmost U.S. states and in Mexico and northern Central America. The population appears stable.
Hermit Warblers sometimes hybridize with Townsend’s Warblers. These hybrids usually have greener backs than pure Hermit Warblers.
Hermit Warblers are the most abundant breeding warbler in the coniferous forests of montane Oregon and Washington.
The song is a rapid series of buzzy notes. A high-pitched flight call is also given.
The Hermit Warbler’s nest is a cup of grasses, moss, pine needles, and twigs and is lined with finer materials. It is placed on top of a branch of a tree or shrub.
Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Whitish with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12 days and fledge at about 8-10 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Hermit Warbler
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Hermit Warbler – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
DENDROICA OCCIDENTALIS (Townsend)
This well-marked wood warbler lives in summer in the high coniferous forests of the west, from British Columbia southward to the southern Sierra Nevadas in California, and spends the winter in Mexico and Central America. This is another of those species discovered by J. K. Townsend along the Columbia River, of which he wrote to Audubon (1841): “I shot this pair of birds near Fort Vancouver, on the 28th of May, 1835. I found them flitting among the pine trees in the depth of a forest. They were actively engaged in searching for insects, and were frequently seen hanging from the twigs like Titmice. Their note was uttered at distant intervals, and resembled very much that of the Black-throated Blue Warbler, Sylvia canadensis.”
In northwestern Washington the hermit warbler is not common and is decidedly local in its summer haunts, being regularly found in certain favored regions and entirely absent in other somewhat similar localities. It is partial to a certain type of coniferous forest, and when one learns to recognize the proper environment he is quite likely to find it. D. E. Drown and S. F. Rathbun showed me some typical haunts of this warbler near Tacoma, where J. H. Bowles has found it nesting. This is level land covered with a more or less open growth of firs and cedars, the largest trees, giant Douglas firs, are somewhat scattered and tower above the rest of the forest, some reaching a height of 200 feet or more. As the warblers spend most of their time in the tops of these great trees and are very active, it is difficult to identify them even with a good glass, and still more difficult to follow them to their nests.
Chester Barlow (1901) says that in the central Sierra Nevada, in California, “the hermit warbler is pre-eminently a frequenter of the conifers, although it feeds in the bushes and black oaks in common with other species.” In the Yosemite region, according to Grinnell and Storer (1924), “the Hermit Warbler is a bird of the coniferous forests at middle altitudes. Pines and firs afford it suitable forage range and safe nesting sites. The birds keep fairly well up in the trees, most often at 20 to 50 feet from the ground. The Hermit may thus be found in close association with the Audubon Warbler, although the latter ranges to a much greater altitude in the mountains.”
Spring: Dr. Chapman (1907), outlining the migration of the hermit warbler, says that it “enters the United States in April being reported from Oracle, Arizona, April 12, 1899, and the Huachuca Mountains, Arizona, April 9, 1902. Records of the earliest birds seen in California are Campo, April 27, 1877, and Julian, April 25, 1884. A Hermit Warbler was noted at Burrard Inlet, British Columbia, April 20, 1885.” Swarth (1904) says that the first arrivals in the Huachucas “appeared in the very highest parts of the mountains, but a little later they could be found in all parts of the range, and on April 17, 1902, I saw a few in some willows near the San Pedro River.” Mrs. Amelia S. Allen’s notes from the San Francisco Bay region, give dates of arrival from April 24 to May 10. In northwestern Washington, according to Bowles (1906), “the hermits make their first appearance early in May and the fact is only to be known thru their notes; for they frequent the tops of the giant firs which cover large sections of our fiat prairie country.”
Nesting: The first undoubted nests of the hermit warbler were found by C. A. Allen in Blue Cafion, California, two in 1886 and one about eight years previously, about which he wrote to William Brewster (1887) : “All three nests were similarly placed ;: in ‘pitch pines,’ from twenty-five to forty feet above the ground, on thick, scraggy limbs, where they were so well concealed that it would have been impossible to find them except by watching the birds, as was done in each instance.” One of these nests held two eggs on June 4, but they were destroyed before they could be collected; the other two nests contained three young each. One of the nests with three young was sent to Brewster, who writes:
The nest with young, taken June 7, 1880, is now before me. It Is composed of the fibrous stalks of herbaceous plants, fine dead twigs, lichens (Evernia vulpine), and a little cotton twine, and is lined with soft inner bark of some coniferous tree and fine long hairs, apparently from the tail of a squirrel. The bright, yellow Evernia, sprinkled rather plentifully about the rim, gives a touch of color to the otherwise cold, gray tone of the exterior and contrasts agreeably with the warm, reddish-brown lining. Although the materials are coarse and wadded, rather than woven, together, the general effect of this nest is neat and tasteful. It does not resemble any other Warbler’s nest that I have seen, but rather recalls the nest of some Fringilline bird, being perhaps most like that of the Lark Finch. It measures externally 4.50 inches In width by 2 Inches in depth. The cavity is 1.25 Inches deep by 2.50 inches wide at the top. The walls at the rim average nearly an inch in thickness.
Chester Barlow (1901), who has had considerable experience with the nesting of the hermit warbler in the central Sierra Nevada, refers to the records up to that time as follows:
On June 10, 1896, Mr. H. H. Beck collected a nest and four eggs from a limb of a yellow pine 40 feet up, near the American River at 3,500 feet altitude. The nest was reached by means of a ladder carried a long distance up the mountain. (See Nidologi8t, IV, p. 79). On June 14, 1898, I had the good fortune to discover a nest opposite the station at Fyffe, it being built at the end of a small limb of a yellow pine 45 feet up. The nest was located by searching at random end contained four eggs about one-fourth Incubated. This nest was described at length in The AuIc (XVI, pp. 156: 161.) * * * While walking through the timber at Fyffe on June 8, 1899, Mr. H. W. Carriger came upon a nest of this species but 2½ feet up In a cedar sapling. It contained four eggs, advanced in incubation. (See CONDOR I, pp. 59: 60). A nest containing young about four days old found by Mr. Price’s assistant at Fyffe on June 11, 1897, was placed twelve feet up near the top of a small cedar, next to the trunk and well concealed. Thus it Is probable that Fyffe has afforded more nesting records of this species than has any other part of the state.
Of the nest described in The Auk, Barlow (1899) says:
The nest was 45 feet from the ground in a yellow pine, built four feet from the trunk of the tree on an upcurved limb 18 inches from the end. * * * The nest is not fastened to the limb, resting merely upon the limb and pine needles and is wider at the bottom than at the top, Its base measuring four inches one way and three inches the other. It is very prettily constructed, the bottom layer being of light grayish weed stems, bleached pine needles and other light materials held securely together by cobwebs and wooly substances. The nest cavity Is lined with strips of red cedar bark (Libocedrus) and the ends, instead of being woven smoothly, project out of the nest. The inner lining Is of a fine brownish fiber resembling shreds of soap-root. The composition of the nest gives it a very pretty effect.
J. H. Bowles (1906) found a nest in northwestern Washington on June 11, 1905, in a grove of young hundred-foot firs near a small swamp.” The female sat so close that he was obliged to lift her from the nest with his hand: and she then flew only a few feet where she remained chipping and spreading her wings and tall. * * The nest was placed twenty feet from the ground in a young fir, and was securely saddled on a good sized limb at a distance of six feet from the trunk of the tree. It is a compact structure composed externally of small dead fir twigs, various kinds of dry moss, and down from the cotton-wood flowers, showing a strong outward resemblance to nests of 0. auduboni. But here the likeness between the t’vo Is at an end; for the lining consists of fine dried grasses, and horsehair, with only a single feather from the wing of a western bluebird. The measurements are, externally, four Inches in diameter and two and three-quarters Inches deep; internally, two inches In diameter by one and a quarter inches deep.”
A nest in the Thayer collection in Cambridge was collected by 0. W. Howard “70 feet above ground, near the end of a limb of a yellow pine, in a bunch of needles,” in Tulare County, Calif. Gordon W. Gullion tells me of an Oregon nest that was “about 125 feet above the ground.”
Eggs: The hermit warbler lays 3, 4, or 5 eggs to a set; 5 are apparently not rare. Bowles (1906) says of hisS eggs: “They have a rather dull white ground with the slightest suggestion of flesh color, heavily blotched and spotted with varying shades of red, brown and lavender. * * * I think they may be considered the handsomest of all the warbiers’ eggs.” The 4 eggs in the Thayer collection in Cambridge are ovate, with a very slight lustre. They are creamy white, finely speckled and spotted with “chestnut” and “auburn,” with intermingling spots of “light brownish drab.” The markings are concentrated at the large end, forming a broad, loose wreath. The measurements of 50 eggs average 17.0 by 13.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 18.0 by 13.4, 17.0 by 13.7, 15.2 by 12.7, and 16.3 by 11.8 millimeters (Harris).
Young: We have no information on the incubation of the eggs, nor on the care and development of the young.
Plumages: I have examined the nestlings sent to Brewster by C. A. Allen; they are about two-thirds fledged on the body and wings; the heads still show the long natal down, “hair brown” in color; the feathers of the back are “olive brown”; the wings are “clove btown,” with two narrow, white wing bars, faintly tinged with pale yellow; the breasts and sides are pale “hair brown” to “light grayish olive”; and the rest of the under parts are yellowish white. A young bird in fresh plumage, collected July 1, is probably in full juvenal plumage; its body plumage is similar to that of the nestlings, but there is some yellow on the forehead and throat, and the sides of the head and neck are decidedly yellow; however, this may be a bird that has assumed its first winter plumage at an unusually early date.
In first winter plumage, young birds of both sexes are much like the adult female at that season, mainly grayish olive-green above, with black streaks concealed or absent; forehead, sides of the head, and chin pale yellow; and the rest of the under parts buffy white, the sides browner. The broad, white tips of the lesser wing coverts have a black shaft streak or wedge, apparently characteristic of this plumage. There is probably a prenuptial molt involving much of the head and body plumage and the wing coverts, but the dull juvenal wings are retained until the next molt.
The complete postnuptial molt occurs in July and August. The fall plumages of both sexes are like the spring plumages, but the clear blacks and yellows are largely concealed by olive above and by buffy below.
Food: The only item I can find on the food of the hermit warbler is the following short statement by Bowlcs (1906) : “Their food consists of small spiders, caterpillars, tiny beetles, and flying insects which they dart out and capture in a manner worthy of that peer of flycatchers the Audubon warbler.”
Behavior: The most marked trait of the hermit warbler is its fondness for the tree tops, spending much of its time in the tops of the tallest firs, often 200 feet or more above the ground, where it is very active and not easy to follow. But it builds its nest at lower levels, and often comes down to forage in the lower branches, in smaller trees and even in the underbrush, where it is not particularly shy and can be easily approached. It is a close sitter while incubating; Bowles had to lift one off its nest.
A hermit warbler watched by Miss Margaret W. Wythe, in Yosemite Valley, “was foraging in the upper parts of the trees and never came to the lower branches. Starting from near the trunk of a pine it would work out to the tip of one branch before going to another. Its demeanor while foraging was much more deliberate than that of any of the other warblers” (Grinnell and Storer, 1924).
Voice: Rathbun (MS.) writes: “The song is quite strong, can be heard a considerable distance, and when given in full consists of five or six notes. The first note, rather faint, rises and then falls, with a slight accent at its close; if one is quite close to the singer, the note has a light lisping sound. This note is followed by another, similar but stronger and more prolonged. Then come three or four short, clear notes quickly given, the song ending with a prolonged rising one that closes sharply. Our interpretation of the song would be zweeo-rweeo-r>wee-zwee-zwee-rweeck. Whenever an additional note is given, it is of the intermediate kind. One or two of these notes are, to us, suggestive of some heard in the song of Townsend’s warbler. The song is quite rapidly sung in an energetic way, being very distinctive and is pleasing. It resembles the song of no other warbler in the region” Bowles (1906) says that the song of the hermit warbler “consists of four distinct notes, as a rule, and is described as zeegle-zeegle, 255 gle-seek, uttered somewhat slowly at first but ending rather sharply.” Barlow (1899) states that “though not loud it would penetrate through the woods quite a distance and very much resembled tait, t~it, t~it, tait, cliee cAse chee, the first four syllables being uttered with a gradual and uniform speed, ending quickly with the chee chee cAse.” Grinnell and Storer (1924) write:
The song of the male Hermit Warbler, while varying somewhat with different Individuals, is suficiently distinct from that of the other warblers of the region to make possible identification by voice alone. The song Is most nearly like that of the Audubon Warbler but usually not so clear or mellow. A male bird observed at Ohinquapin seemed to say seezie, 8ceZie, seezic, seezie, reek, reek; just that number of syllables, over and over again. The quality was slightly droning, but not so much so as that of the Black-throated Gray Warbler. Another song, clearer in quality, heard in Yosemite Valley, was written tcr’-lcp, tcr’-ley, ter’-ley, 8ic’, sic’, thus much more nearly like the song of the Audubon Warbler. Other transscriptions ranged between these two as to timbre. A rendering set down at Glacier Point June 16, 1915, was as follows: ser-weez’, scr-wec.r’, 8er-wcez’, ser’, ser’. The marked rhythm throughout, and the stressed terminal syllables, are distinctive features of the Hermit’s song. The call note Is a moderate chip.”
Writing of warbler songs of early dawn, Dawson (Dawson and Bowles, 1909) indulges in the following flowery praise of the hermit’s sing: “There is Audubon with his hastening melody of gladness. There is Black-throated Gray with his still drowsy sonnet of sweetï content. Then there is Hermit hidden aloft in the shapeless greenery of the under-dawn: his note is sweetest, gladdest, most seraphic of them all, lilly, lilly, lilly, lei.oleet. It is almost sacrilege to give it form: besides it is so hopeless. The preparatory notes are like the tinkle of crystal bells, and when our attention is focused, lo! the wonder happens, the exquisite lilt of the closing phrase, le~-oleet.”
Field marks: The yellow head, the black throat, the dark back, and the white, unmarked under parts will distinguish the male in spring. The head of the female, of young birds, and of fall birds is also more or less yellowish and the back is more olivaceous. The two white wing bars are also common to several other species. Its song is said to be distinctive.
Fall: The fall migration of the hermit warbler begins early. Bowles (1906) says that, in Washington, “about the middle of July both young and old assemble in good-sized flocks and frequent the water holes in the smaller growths of timber. At such times I have never seen them associating with any other kinds of birds.” W. W. Price wrote to Mr. Barlow (1901) of the migration in the Sierra Nevada:
The adults are very rare during June and July in the neighborhood of my camp at Silver Creek, but late in July and early in August a migration of the young birds of the year takes place and the species is very abundant everywhere in the tamaracks from about 6000 to 8000 feet. A hundred or more may be counted in an hour’s walk at my camp, 7000 feet, on Sliver Creek. They are very silent, uttering now and then a ~cheep,’ and always busy searching among the leaves and cones for insects. Among some fifty coliected in the first week in August, 1896, there were only two or three adults. The young males have the most coloring, but they in no way approach adult plumage. These great flights of the hermit warbler are intermingled with other species, Hammond flycatcher, Calaveras and lutescent warbiers, Cassin vireo, and sometimes Louisiana tanagers and red-brested nuthatches. Each year the flight has beet’ noted, it comes without warning of storm or wind, and after a few days disappears to be seen no more.
In the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona, according to Swarth (1904), “they reappeared in August, but at this time were seen only in the pines above 8500 feet. It is rather singular, and in contradiction to the idea that in the migrations the old birds go first in order to show the way, that the first secured in the fall was a young female, taken August 7th. The young birds then became very abundant, and on August 14th the first adult female was taken; and not until August 19th was an adult male seen. The adults then became nearly as abundant as the juveniles, and both together were more numerous than I have ever seen them in the spring, on several occasions as many as fifteen to twenty being seen in one flock.”
Winter: Dr. Skutch writes to me: “The hermit warbler is a moderately abundant winter resident in the Guatemalan highlands, found chiefly between 5,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level, but ranging downward to about 3,500 feet on the Pacific slope and possibly somewhat lower on the Caribbean slope, where pine forests push down into the upper levels of the Tropical Zone. These treetop birds are usually found in the mixed flocks of small birds, of which Townsend’s warblers form the predominant element. During the early part of their sojourn in Guatemala, I sometimes saw two, three, or more hermits in the same flock; but in February and March, there was as a rule only one. In 1933, I saw the last of these warblers on the Sierra de Tecp~n on March 29, and recorded the first fall arrival on September 13, when four individuals were seen.”
Range: Western North America from Puget Sound to Nicaragua. Breeding range: The hermit warbler breeds north to northwestern Washington (Lake Crescent and Tacoma). East to the Cascades of Washington (Tacoma); Oregon (Prospect); and the Sierra Nevada in California (Meadow Valley, Pinecrest, Yosemite Valley, Taylor Meadow, and the San Bernardino Mountains). South to the San Bernardino Mountains and La Honda. West to the Pacific coast from central western California northward (La Honda, Cahto, and Garberville); western Oregon (Kerby and Tillamook); and northwestern Washington (Lake Crescent).
Winter range: The hermit warbler has been found in winter north to central Mexico (Taxco, Cuernavaca, and Mexico City). East to Mexico City and central Guatemala (San Ger6nimo and Alotepeque). South to southern Guatemala (Alotepeque); probably farther south since specimens have been taken at Los Esesmiles, El Salvador, and Metagalpa, Nicaragua. West to western Guatemala (Altopeque, Tecp~n, and Momostenango); western Oaxaca (La Parada); and northern Guerrero (Taxco).
The hermit warbler has been taken three times in January in central western California (San Geronimo and Point Reyes, Mann County; and Pacific Grove, Monterey County).
Migration: Late dates of spring departure from the winter home are: Guatemala: Tecp~.n, March 29. Sonora: Rancho la Arizona, May 8. Anizona: Iluachuca Mountains: May 28.
Early dates of spring arrival are: Tampico: Galindo, March 19. Coahuila: Sierra de Guadeloupe, April 20. Arizona: Oracle, April 12. California: Witch Creek, April 10. ‘Washington: Tacoma, April 25.
Late dates of fall departure are: Washington: Edwards, October 19. California: Monterey, October 20. Arizona: Santa Catalina Mountains, September 29. Tamaulipas: Guiaves, October 7.
Early dates of fall arrival are: California: Berkeley, July 9. Arizona: Graham Mountains, July 30. New Mexico: Animas Peak, August 3. MichoacAn: Tancitaro, August 16. Guatemala: Tecp6n, September 13.
Casual records: Specimens of the hermit warbler have been collected in the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona on June 10,1894; at Basin in the Chisos Mountains in Texas on May 3, 1935; and near Cambridge, Miun., on May 3, 1931.
Egg dates: California: 10 records, May 14 to June 25; 6 records, June 3 to 14, indicating the height of the season.
Washington: 3 records, June 5 to 11 (Harris).