A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Fairly common in Sonoma County in suitable habitat during the summer months, somewhat less common in winter, but present all year. This warbler--Common Yellowthroat is classed among the warblers--is nearly always associated with water. Seen near freshwater ponds, marshes, and streams but also uses brackish marshy areas near estuaries. A skulker. Tends to stay low in reeds or other vegetation near the waterline or along shore. Often twitches its tail or holds its tail cocked upright. Hops when on the ground. Behavior often described as “wren-like.”  Mostly insect diet.

Common Yellowthroat is highly variable geographically. Fifteen or more subspecies are recognized (11 is another commonly quoted number). Two (or three, depending on source) subspecies are present locally. The common subspecies in Santa Rosa and north of Santa Rosa is Geothlypis trichas occidentalis (although some sources say G. c. arizela instead). The second, known as Saltmarsh Yellowthroat (G. c. sinuosa), lives in the southern part of the county, particularly in brackish and saltwater marshes near San Pablo Bay (confined to saltwater marshes in the immediate San Francisco Bay Area generally), but I can find no information about what separates the races visually. The differences appear to be subtle. Subspecies aside, Common Yellowthroat breeds in favored habitat in much of the county. Winters in Southwestern and southern United States and along the Pacific Coast, Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies.

A male Common Yellowthroat is striking and hard to confuse with any other bird (photo above). The black mask with pale upper border is unique. Olive to brownish on nape and back. Yellow at throat, upper breast, and under the tail. Light olive-buff to pale elsewhere on the underside. Longish, dark tail. Adult females are quite drab, usually plain grey with no black in the face but showing yellow at the throat, upper breast, and under the tail (photo at bottom of page). First-year males are similar but usually show some black or a suggestion of black in the mask area (photo below). First-year females can be quite drab indeed, showing very little color at all, but there is almost always a clearly delineated pale area at the throat. The very drab bird pictured below is probably a first-year female, but some first-year males show no black in the face, which makes them more or less indistinguishable from young females. Females, especially first-year birds, may suggest Orange-crowned Warbler.

Yellowthroats love to sing in the spring and summer. The song is usually described as sounding like wichity-wichity-wichity, but I have seen references to tortilla-tortilla-tortilla as a descriptor (Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas) and the song is somewhat variable. The chip note of the Yellowthroat (something like tchep!) is distinctive and worth learning (see link below). Because of its secretive behavior, Common Yellowthroat is frequently heard but not seen.      

Trivia: The genus name Geothlypis means “ground-hugging”--appropriate given Common Yellowthroat’s habits. Frequent Cowbird host.

English synonyms: Belding's Yellowthroat, Black-Masked Ground Warbler, Florida Yellowthroat, Goldman's Yellowthroat, Maryland Yellowthroat, Northern Yellowthroat, Pacific Yellowthroat, Saltmarsh Yellowthroat, Southern Yellowthroat, Tule Yellowthroat, Western Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat in other languages--German: Gelbkehlchen, Weidengelbkehlchen; Spanish: Antifacito Norteño, Caretica, Chipe de Cara Negra, Ciguíta Enmascarada, Cigüita Enmascarada, Cuelliamarillo Común, Enmascarado Norteño, Mascarita Común, Reinita de Antifaz, Reinita Gorgigualda, Reinita Pica Tierra; French: Fauvette masquée, Paruline à gorge jaune, Paruline masquée, Sylvette masquée; Russian: Желтогорлый масковый земляной певун, Желтогорлый масковый певун; Chinese: 黄喉地; Japanese: カオグロアメリカムシクイ(kaoguroamerikamushikui)

(Language information from Avibase, Birds of Europe (Mullarney et al, Princeton Field Guide Series), and Birds of Asia (Mark Brazil, Princeton Field Guide Series).

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 109

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 367

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 151

Curson, Quinn, and Beadle, Warblers of the Americas, 1994, pp. 13, 19, 58-59, 174

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 396

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 452

Dunn and Garrett, Warblers: Peterson Field Guides, 1st ed., 1997, pp. 512-525, pl. 24 (spanning pp. 90-91)

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 571-572

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 546

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 319

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 402

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 324

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 390-411 (general notes on warbler ID); pp. 104, 394, 411

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 238-239

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 63

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 276

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 320

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 302

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 386

Stephenson and Whittle, The Warbler Guide, 2013, pp. 254-263

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 634

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Warblers, 2004, pp. 82-83, 163

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 368

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Common Yellowthroat



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Common Yellowthroat

Geothlypis trichas

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July XX, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Common Yellowthroat, Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, Petaluma, November 16, 2013

Common Yellowthroat (probably first-year female), Bodega Bay, October 11, 2013

Common Yellowthroat, Bodega Bay, November 27, 2013

First fall male, note incomplete face mask