Thursday, October 09, 2008

Mystery Bird Quiz #5 Answer

All right. Nice guesses all around, people! I agree that this one is a toughie. The correct answer is Cape May warbler. And I believe the bird is a fall adult male.

The first thing you notice about this bird is the striped upper back and the bold white wing bars. Unfortunately the "clincher" field mark of a fall Cape May (the contrasting, lime-colored rump) is not visible. but the bold wing bars and the yellowish wash on the part of the face that's visible are great field marks for a fall adult Cape May. Some fall adult males still show a lot of the rufous in the face—but this one does not.

A Blackburnian warbler in fall does share the Cape May's white wing bars, but the Blackburnian's are bolder. Also a Blackburnian in fall would show pale or white lines (not streaking) along a blacker back.

A black-throated green warbler in fall has an unstreaked upper back.

Blackpoll warbler is another good guess. But I think the larger wing bar is too obvious for a fall blackpoll. And the bird is too yellowish overall, especially in the face.

Below are a few other Cape May warblers in various seasons.

A fall Cape May warbler showing the classic, clinching field mark: the contrasting lime rump

A fall Cape May warbler male. This bird is retaining hints of it breeding plumage coloration. Note the huge wing bar.

Breeding-plumaged Cape May warbler in spring.

Breeding-plumaged Cape May warbler in spring. Note the rufous face and the bold wing bar.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Tennessee Warbler

Congratulations to all the contestants in last Friday's Fall Warbler ID Quiz. Alan Pulley, who blogs at this location, was the first reader to correctly name this mystery bird as a Tennessee warbler. Nice detective work, Alan!

My silence over the weekend was not due to my disapproval of the various guesses on the mystery bird's ID. Rather, I was blissfully out of touch with the Web while performing at The Berkeley Spring (WV) Fall Birding Festival. While there I got to see some old birding pals, make some new ones, and had the amazing experience of seeing nearly 1,000 migrant blue jays streaming overhead in groups of 6 to 40 during our Sunday morning bird walk at Sleepy Creek Retreat. No life birds, but a life birding experience seeing so many blue jays in the space of a couple of hours. The hurricane rains did nothing to dampen our spirits.

Now back to our mystery bird.

I did not use an image that showed the bird's face and head. Seeing the faint crowned appearance, the pale supercilium (line over the eye), and the very thin bill would have been really easy clues to the bird's identity.

The best initial step to take when trying to identify a drab fall warbler is to ask yourself: "Does it have wingbars?" If it does, you've already narrowed your potential species options to those WITH wingbars.

Next, check to see if the underparts are streaked. This narrows your choices even further.

(For a great synopsis of this process, get yourself a copy of Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges. Eirik A.T. Blom, Julie Zickefoose, and I each wrote chapters covering the warblers in ways that we find helpful and memorable. Bird ID experts Jeffrey A. Gordon, Marshall Iliff, and George Armistead also share their knowledge in the book, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005).

So what DID my mystery warbler photo show? It showed a bird with a uniformly greenish back and rump, with no obvious wingbars or tail spots. It appears to be only slightly lighter-colored below, with no obvious streaking on the underparts.

This eliminates chestnut-sided warbler which would appear paler/grayish-white below and which would show obvious wingbars. Pine warbler would show obvious wingbars, too and would be streaky below. A Cape May warbler would have a duller-gray back, but a lime-green rump. This bird's back and rump are the same color.

Orange-crowned warbler is an excellent guess. This is another Vermivora warbler, like the Tennessee. Both have finely-tipped bills; both are varying degrees of drab yellowish-green; and both lack obvious wingbars. (Please note the the orange crown on this species is not a field mark and is extremely hard to see.)

There are a few other clues that help to steer the identity of this bird to Tennessee warbler rather than to orange-crowned. The lack of streaking on the underparts, the lack of a yellow undertail (not well displayed in my photograph, sorry), and the location where the bird was seen: southeastern Ohio. Orange-crowned warblers are fairly unusual in the East in the fall, whereas Tennessee warblers are a very common fall migrant. (Tennessee warblers are rare in the West.)

Having grown up as a bird watcher in the East and Midwest, I am much more familiar with the Tennessee warbler than I am with the orange-crowned warbler. Every fall I see dozens and dozens of TNs on my farm. In 16 years there, I've seen exactly one orange-crowned.

Bathing Tennessee warbler. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Here is a fall Tennessee warbler bathing in our Bird Spa. Note the supercilium, the finely tipped bill, and the greenish back.

Sorry for the headless bird ID quiz photo. In the next one, I promise to show the head and face.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

New Bird ID Quiz

Dear Bill of the Birds Readers:

Here's one to ponder over the weekend. What is this bird?

Hint: It IS a warbler. I took this photo on Monday, September 22, 2008, in my yard in southeastern Ohio. So we know it's not a chiff-chaff.

Good luck!

And when you're done with this quiz, get out to see some REAL birds this weekend.
It's the peak of fall migration here in the Midwest.



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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bird ID Quiz Winner!

The original look at a Confusing Fall Warbler.

Congratulations to Neil Gilbert, who writes about Orange County Birding in his OC Birding Blog, for being the first BOTB reader to correctly identify this bird as a bay-breasted warbler. Neil, who is 16, lends further proof to my belief that today's young birders are WAY better informed and knowledgeable than most of the rest of us were (at least those of us older than 35 or so). Check out Neil's blog, too. He gots mad skilz.

A closer look reveals a bay-breasted warbler, probably a first year female.

I know I should be saying here that there's no such thing as a Confusing Fall Warbler. Better birders than I often say that, and I suppose it's true. But I still find myself scratching my head at some of the individual fall warblers that slip through our ridgetop trees here in SE Ohio. If that's not confusion, then I need to change shampoos.

There are three species that, in fall, look a lot like this bird: plain olive-yellow overall with wingbars and some streaking on the breast or back (or both). These three are: pine warbler, bay-breasted warbler, and blackpoll warbler.

At this point you might want to grab your favorite field guide(s) for handy visual reference points. I'd also suggest reading "The Blackpoll Trio" chapter in Kenn Kaufman's excellent book Advanced Birding.

All of these birds are subtly plumaged, and, in their most confusing versions (first year or hatching year females) they are REALLY similar. Adults are less confusing in fall because they tend to hang on to some of their breeding plumage coloration. Fall adult pine warblers look exactly like breeding plumage birds. Fall adult bay-breasteds of both sexes usually show some of the rusty "bay" coloration on the flanks (sides). Fall adult blackpolls are flying south over the Atlantic Ocean and are rarely seen inland. But if you DID see one, it would look streaky—and quite similar to breeding plumage adults.

In navigating the murky waters of identification of the "baypolls" as some birders call this trio, you should resist the urge to rely upon one single field mark. But two or three field marks vastly increases your likelihood of making a correct identification.

Let's review a few of the field marks than make this a bay-breasted warbler.

Our bird has definite streaks on the back, which pretty much eliminates pine warbler (which nearly always shows an unstreaked back). A close look at the bill shows it to be relatively thin and finely tipped. Pine warbler bills look stout and more bluntly tipped to me—perfect for a bird that sometimes probes beneath bark for insects. Pine warblers often show an obvious, though small, broken ring (pale in young birds, yellow in adults) around the eye, which this bird does not have. First year female pine warblers are the very definition of dull colored‚ almost gray-brown. Adult pine warblers show a lot of yellow on the throat and breast. This bird (above) shows quite a bit of greenish color, but not much yellow on the throat and breast.

So let's toss out pine warbler. mmmK? mmmK!
[For an excellent walk through the identification of a pine warbler, see Jeffrey A. Gordon's recent post about this very thing.]

So, how do we choose between blackpoll and bay-breasted? At this point I often look at the legs and feet. If I get a good look and I see that the bird has pale or yellow feet or legs, I'm leaning toward blackpoll. If the legs seem gray or dark, or if I cannot get a good look, then it could be either.

Next we should look at the streaking. If the bird has noticeable streaking on the breast AND the back, it's most likely to be a blackpoll. The Sibley guide (page 443) and the new Peterson guide (page 352) both show this quite well. The National Geographic guide (page 381) does not—the birds seem too dark to me. (Please don't get me started on the imperfections of printing, a subject about which I am all too experienced.)

Looking at the underparts of a "baypoll" warbler, the quality and location of the color can help steer you toward one species or the other. If the warbler's underparts are relatively uniform in color from throat to undertail (and lacking in streaking, remember?) you almost certainly have a bay-breasted warbler in your sights. If, however, there is a distinct change from greenish-yellow (near to the throat) to white (on the belly) and there's a little bit of faint streaking on the flanks, you're looking at a blackpoll warbler. For a nice discussion of this, please read the "Streaky Fall Warblers" chapter on page 296 in Identify Yourself.

A first-year blackpoll warbler in fall. Note the streaky breast and the pale legs and feet. Spectacular imagery by Julie Zickefoose.

Here we're using three distinct field marks—legs/feet, streaking, underparts coloration—to separate bay-breasted warbler from blackpoll warbler. The clues may be subtle, but if you're tuned in to them, the less subtly marked "baypolls" will be easy pickings for you.

I'm no warbler ID expert. But I do know enough to realize that each fall is a chance (for a few short weeks) to "go to school" on the baypolls. I also know that my mind is not a steel trap, so a refresher when these birds are passing through is most useful.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fall Warbler Quiz

OK, my peeps. Let's have a fall warbler quiz! I photographed this bird a few days ago in my yard in southeastern Ohio. Yes, it's a wood warbler and it's in non-breeding plumage.

You could even say it's a CFW: a Confusing Something Warbler. Or maybe the F just stands for Fall.

Please send in your best guess via the comments section below. I'll crown a winner in the next few days. The prize is bragging rights, baby.

Good luck and may the best bird watcher win!

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