Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yellowlegs ID

Lesser (left) and greater (right) yellowlegs at the Tank Farm along Rt 7 near Newport, Ohio.

During our Washington County, Ohio Big Day, the Whipple Bird Club was fortunate enough to see BOTH species of yellowlegs. Not only that, but as we were discussing the finer points of telling greater yellowlegs from lesser yellowlegs, the birds obliged by standing next to each other in perfect profile for a few moments.

This really gave us a good look at the key field marks: the differences in bill length and size; body size; leg length; and plumage markings on the flanks (of the greater).

It might make birding less challenging, but wouldn't it be great if more birds cooperated like this? I'm talking to YOU sharpies & Coops, scaups, peeps, empids, chickadees, shrikes, ibises (ibi?), and most of the dang sparrows!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mystery Bird ID Quiz #7

I found an old compact flash card from my digital camera in my camera bag the other day. Out of curiosity, I popped the card in my Mac and found a series of bird images on it. Since this image (above) and several others of the same bird had never been downloaded, I decided to make this bird the subject of the next Mystery Bird ID Quiz here at Bill of the Birds.

This one may seem rather easy. Or not. Please make your best guess via the comments section on this post and we'll see how birdy your brain really is.

Good luck!

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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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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Clark's versus Western Grebe

The road through the Bear River NWR.

On our daylong field trip to Bear River NWR in Utah, during the recent American Birding Association convention, we got to see large numbers of both western and Clark's grebes. This was a real treat for me. I'd seen lakefuls of western grebes before (in North Dakota) but picking out the very few Clark's grebes in those instances was always like a game of Where's Waldo. Here at Bear River it was more evenly blended between the two species.

Big western-type grebes look black above white below from a distance.

Just like house finch versus purple finch or sharpie versus Cooper's hawk, telling these two very similar grebes apart seems quite tough at first. But given a chance like we had to study the birds well under perfect viewing conditions, the differences between the two grebes become more obvious.

Western grebes.

Both are large, long-necked birds that appear all-dark above and bright white below. The key field marks to look for are all on the head. Start with the face and look at the area surrounding the birds' bright red eyes. See how the western grebes look darker headed with the dark "cap" actually encircling the eyes?

Now look at the Clark's grebes. Notice how white-faced they look? And the white (not black) encircles the eyes.

Clark's grebes.

Another good head-based field mark is the difference in the bills of the two species. Westerns have a yellow-green bill that looks fairly stout and substantial. By comparison the Clark's bill is bright candy-corn yellow and much thinner.

Looking at my two images of these mated pairs of grebes the Clark's grebes look daintier to me: Their eyes even look smaller. The western grebes on the other hand look chunky and dark-headed, and big-eyed.

While we were watching these grebes feed and squabble and court in the ponds at Antelope Island, I noticed that at a great distance I could make fairly accurate guesses about which species I was seeing. If the birds looked more white than dark they were usually Clark's. If they looked more dark than light, they were westerns.

Next post: Doing the Splashy Dance

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