Arctic Warbler

Phylloscopus borealis

  • Version: 2.0 — Published April 25, 2014
  • Peter E. Lowther and Susan Sharbaugh

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Arctic Warbler in North America.

This species also breeds in Eurasia; all populations winter in southeast Asia. See text for details.

Male Arctic Warbler, Nome, AK, 10 June.

Easily distinguished from most North American warblers, but very similar to many species in the genus Phylloscopus, the Arctic Warbler breeds across much of the northern stretches of Asia, just barely extending into Alaska. Migrants move west across the Bering Sea to winter in southeast Asia. Superficially similar to Tennessee Warbler, but note Arctic's stouter pale-based bill, pale legs, and longer supercilium. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

This plain, greenish-tinged Old World warbler breeds across the subarctic taiga of Eurasia, from Norway to the Chukchi Peninsula of far eastern Siberia and across the Bering Strait into western Alaska. All breeding populations, including those of Alaska, migrate to wintering areas in southeast Asia.

This species is called “sungaqpaluktungiq” in the Inupiaq language of northwestern Alaska and “cungakcuarnaq” in the Central Yupik language of southwestern Alaska. The stem of both names (first 2 syllables) means gallbladder—likely in reference to the greenish plumage of this bird (M. Krauss pers. comm.).

Molecular phylogenetics have recently found that the family of Old World warblers, Sylviidae, is polyphyletic---an amalgam of various lineages not closely related.  The leaf warblers, chiefly genus Phylloscopus, were placed in their own family, Phylloscopidae.  In addition, systematics work on the Arctic Warbler specifically led to a proposal that the species as it was long recognized be split into three allospecies, one of wide occurrence across northern Eurasia into Alaska and two in eastern Asia.  See Systematics for details.

As might be expected, most study of the Arctic Warbler has been with Old World populations. Few studies of this species have been done in North America. At the time of Bent's Life History account (Tucker 1949), the only confirmed breeding records of Arctic Warbler in North America were reports of Dixon (Dixon 1938a) from Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) National Park, Alaska. Early references to this species in North America speculated on the possibility of nesting but felt that specimen records and observations were of vagrants or strays from Siberia.

A thorough understanding of this species is hampered by its remote distribution. The account for this species in Cramp 1992 (see also Glutz Von Blotzheim and Bauer 1991) provides a general reference to Arctic Warbler biology and summarizes published literature. What follows in this account attempts to emphasize studies and details of the Alaska population. Reference here to Cramp 1992 alone, by default, means that there is “No information from populations in North America.” The most extensive published study from North America is that of Price and Beck (Price and Beck 1989) who reported observations of 1 season on 11 nests near Nome, Alaska, and more recently the work of Sharbaugh et al. (Sharbaugh et al. 2007) who monitored 96 nests over 3 seasons in east-central Alaska.

Recommended Citation

Lowther, P. E. and S. Sharbaugh (2014). Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.