Saturday, November 28, 2009


...sapsuckers.  All three used to be lumped as the single species Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  A  couple of decades ago, the AOU Committee decided to split this bird based on genetic evidence.  Typically, it's relatively easy in the field to distinguish the current three species: the throat pattern of the Red-naped, with its red throat that bleeds through the black lateral throat stripe; the extensive red on the head and breast of the Red-breasted, and the plain nape and irregularly mottled back of the Yellow-bellied.  In addition, of course, range maps will help.  But more and more sapsuckers are showing up out of range and showing intermediate plumages.

All of this makes me wonder whether we shouldn't stop trying to identify weird-looking sapsuckers in the field and instead take inspiration from the old species epithet of the combined Yellow-bellied group: varius.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Northern Mockingbird

Years ago waking up early one of the first mornings I lived in graduate student housing, I was shocked and stunned to hear a fellow resident's alarm clock persistently ringing.  Was everyone getting up this early--to bird?  I dressed and got ready to leave for my early walk, still hearing the alarm clock.  Oddly, it got louder and louder the closer I got to the outdoors. Only once I was outside and heading towards the woods did I realize my mistake.  No fellow grad student was in sight--but a Northern Mockingbird was perched on a wire opposite my flat and he was singing--or rather ringing--away.

In the intervening years, I have learned that one of the most reliable ways to identify Northern Mockingbirds is, in fact, by their sounds.  If you keep hearing car alarms, alarm clocks, cooking sounds (I'm not kidding) as well as several different birds one after another, the chances are that you're in the presence of a Northern Mockingbird. The classic field marks, of course, are the white patches in the primaries and in the tail, but if the bird is perched (most of the time, in my experience!), you can't see these identification marks.

Perched, usually on top of bushes, the Northern Mockingbirds have a good long tail, a small head, a fairly short and thrush-like bill, and an overall slender look (though they can puff themselves up causing them to look much fatter than they are).  Usually, you can also see the two white wing bars.  In posture they tend to be more horizontal than vertical, and they look alert (rather than sleepy)--probably due to their long legs, though possibly also because they are always on the lookout for their next source of mockery.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ugly Duckling

I've always liked the story of the Ugly Duckling.  Maybe it's because I have High School memories of the popular girls or maybe it's because I am ever hopeful that at some point I'll answer that age-old question:  who am I, really?  But at any rate, I have a soft spot for those duck(lings) that many birders ignore or--worse still in my opinion--describe as 'trash birds'.  And Mallards fall among them.

Your classic Drake Mallard in breeding plumage is very easy to identify: its glossy green head, smart white neckline and chocolate-colored breast is unmistakable.  Likewise, the female in breeding plumage has some telltale signs, notably the orange bill with the black center. But there are many Domestic Mallards and they can range in color from pure white to dark black with practically everything in between.  They're usually easy to spot: big, clunky ducks, usually with orange/yellow/green bills.  But I learned a trick to sex these Domestic Mallards:  the breeding males will have the curly-q  feathers at the end of their tales, as seen on the second black Mallard in the picture.  Most people won't look twice at a Mallard, let alone a Domestic one.  But actually, these birds deserve a second glance--just like the Ugly Duckling.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fancy Pigeons

To a non-birder the word pigeon generally conjures up images of a multi-colored bird pecking for crumbs in major urban centers: St. Paul's Cathedral in London comes to mind, or the downtown areas of New York.  To a birder those pigeons are Columba livia, aka Rock Doves (or, to really up-to-date birders following the supplements to the AOU checklist Rock Pigeons as of 2003).  But there are many other birds in the Columbidae family; in English they sometimes are called doves, at other times pigeons.

Two of my favourites are Mourning Dove and White-winged Dove (see picture above).  Like the Rock Pigeons, these two are pretty common sights in urban Tucson.  In some ways, I think they're pretty similar: as evidenced by my photo, they choose the same perches, in posture they are both fairly upright and they both have tails that extend far below the wing tips.  Of course, there is the obvious size difference, very obligingly projected by these two birds as they perched next to one another, as well as the clear white wing patches which provide a nice white edge when the White-winged Dove has its wings folded.  But sometimes, you don't get two birds together nor do you get a profile view.

If you're lucky enough to hear the bird you'll easily be able to distinguish the Mourning Dove's slower, really melancholic song from the White-winged's owl-like call.  But what works for me every time is looking more closely at the tail: while both birds have long tails, the Mourning Dove's tail is sharply pointed, a characteristic you can see from any angle.  In contrast, the White-winged Dove's tail is really quite blocky.  If you glimpse the tail from underneath you'll of course also see the dark tail band.  Either bird is really quite beautiful--as are Rock Pigeons--and deserves some appreciation.  All three of these birds are shot in the States, but I prefer to shoot them with the camera.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Grail Bird?

My husband just came back from Mexico today (the ABA conference in Veracruz) and as soon as he was unpacked (and the laundry machine was going), I eagerly began to examine his photos.  Beautiful, striking birds  appeared before me on the screen. And then along came this bird.  Given the context--exotic birds my spouse got to see and I didn't--and the bird's general shape, especially the cut-off rear end, my initial reaction was "ah, some species of rail that I don't know."  (In my defense the preceding picture was of Gray-necked Woodrail--so I clearly had rails on the brain).  Fortunately, I quickly realized that in fact this was one of my old friends: Great-tailed Grackle, missing its tail feathers.  The eye, too, of course is pale and the bill just doesn't fit a Rail bill.  If I'd been paying better attention, I would have realized that the habitat was more typical of a Grackle than a Rail, too--mowed lawn and concrete.  I know what a Grackle looks like and what a Rail looks like, but thinking about Mexico and expecting something exotic, I merged the two and came up with that centuries old treasure: the Grail -- in bird form, of course!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

How Old are You?

I can now generally identify an Osprey when I see one, though in my earlier years I called plenty of Bald Eagles Ospreys.  There is no rest for the wicked, however, and now I constantly find myself trying to determine the age of the sighted Osprey.

At first study (with binoculars), I looked at the eye color and thought that because the eye was yellowish, this would be an adult (juveniles have orange eyes).  But skeptical as I am of using color as my only identification tool--and because eye color gradually changes over the autumn--I turned to the pattern of the bird.  Juveniles, according to Wheeler, have white tips to all the feathers which gradually wear off as the bird ages.  My bird has a few white tips to go with the yellowish eyes, so it seems to me I have an old juvenile bird.

Still not quite sure, I looked into the migration timing of Ospreys.  It turns out that adults and juveniles don't migrate together; adults leave earlier (beginning in late August and early September), while juveniles are on the road (or the telephone pole) later in the month.  I saw this bird in Utah at the end of September.  That timing supports the 'old juvenile' status I have bestowed on this bird.

I'm never quite sure of age--birds, like people, seem to enjoy hiding their real age.  However, my best guess for this one would be that this white-tipped, yellowish-eyed bird (I haven't mastered sexing Ospreys yet) was on its first migration and thus would be an old juvenile.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is My Dog a Better Birder than Yours?

Years ago I was at the Grand Canyon, looking for the Condors.  Suddenly a fellow watcher pointed excitedly to the large, black birds that landed on the concrete ahead of us.  "Wow!  Amazing birds!" the watcher exclaimed.  "Yes," I replied, "beautiful Ravens."  "No, no,"  was the response, "those are the Condors.  I know, because I have raisins [sic] at home and these are much bigger."  I decided not to burst this watcher's bubble--she thought she'd seen the Condors, and who am I to take away her pleasure?

However, my dog would not have made that mistake.  You see, for some reason--inexplicable to me--my dog is afraid of Ravens--Chihuahuan and Common (first photo)--but of no other bird.  The more common identification mistake is, of course, between Ravens and Crows and that's one that Gelert (my dog) never makes.

When the Common Ravens perch on the wire that extends over our backyard and call away at him, he comes running to either me or my husband.  Yet American Crows (second photo) can come right up to him and he is not at all phased.  Recently, we were in the presence of both American Crows and Ravens almost all the time, and without fail Gelert came running when a Raven was near.  Is it the size?  Or the call?  Or perhaps some other animal instinct?  I don't know, but I have to say that I enjoy watching his discerning reaction.

What would he do with a Condor?  Well, I have yet to find out, but if he sees one before I do, I'll be the one running away (in misery)!
Gelert, in the presence of American Crows.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I know birders who love shorebirds. I once had a boyfriend whose idea of a date was to take me to a sewage pond to look at shorebirds. Now I admit that shorebirds are quite nice to look at--they can even be rather beautiful--but I wouldn't go so far as to say that I love them. In fact, I find them rather frustrating.

Fortunately, some are easily identifiable--Ruddy Turnstone comes to mind: not only is it large (always a plus in my books), but it really does behave as its name describes, going along turning over stones, pebbles, whatever it can find.

More challenging for me are, for example, Western and Least Sandpipers. Of course, Least is the smallest sandpiper, but size can be tricky, especially because I usually look at shorebirds through a scope and I really don't have a sense of their actual size.

Then there's foot color: Westerns have black and Leasts have yellow feet; at Avra Valey sewage ponds, they recently both had blue (thanks to algae). Belly color should help too: Westerns have a bright white belly, while Leasts are overall dingier. But sunlight and water reflection can play havoc with my color recognition skills.

So here's how I (try to) distinguish these two species. I ignore color and look more at location and posture--and Gestalt, as one of my readers recently pointed out. Where (at the sewage pond) is the bird? Generally Westerns tend to be in the water, while Leasts are often at the edge. Because they have longer legs and a longer bill, the Westerns can spend more time in deeper water, and often dunk their whole head. The Leasts, in contrast, due to their shorter legs and bill, tend to pick rather than dunk.

The differences in leg length contribute to a difference in posture, too. Westerns are more upright--they have a pointed rear end that gives them an elegant look, while the short legs and bill of Leasts give them an overall dumpy/cuter look.

Sound is fairly reliable, too. Westerns have a fingernail-on-the-chalkboard screech; Least's trill sounds lower to me and seems to rise in pitch: at any rate, it is preferable to Western's screech.

And by the way, that boyfriend? He's now my husband, and we have visited many sewage ponds across the States and even across international borders!
I'm still at the beginning of shorebird identification, but I do have these two species down--I hope.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Tyranny of Flycatchers

I'm out in the field in SE Arizona and spot a small group of birds on the fence.  I easily identify them as one of the yellow-bellied kingbirds.   It's not Couch's because there's only one record in AZ for those (and yes, I am realistic in my sightings and don't expect to see a super rare bird!).  That brings up four contenders: Thick-billed, Tropical, Western, and Cassin's 

Thick-billed is out because (unlike other bird names that I know, for example Red-cockaded woodpecker--just who can see the red cockade in the field?) this name actually fits and the bird really does have a thick bill (and, of couse, it's really rare--note my attitude toward seeing rare birds above).

So now I'm down to three.  Tail color of Tropical, being brown rather than black, means that these birds are not a Tropical.  That leaves Western and Cassin's, which are frustrating.  Now, if you had one of each side by side (as in the field guides) you can see a difference in the darkness of the gray on the chest; but such contrastive criteria really don't work when I am faced with a single specimen.  (Field Guides, for example, don't take in the individual variation: how about a very light Cassin's next to a very dark Western's?)

The other day I admit I got pretty annoyed.  However, this caused me to spend some time with photos of dead birds (and contrary to dead puppies, dead birds are much fun--as long as they weren't killed by cats) and have finally understood a  helpful difference.

Cassin's Kingbirds are fatter.  Yes, in part, in the picture below this is an artefact of preparation, but it really is true in the field.  Cassin's Kingbirds are chubby and thus their centre of gravity is in their belly and--most helpful of all--they sit very close to the wire: they seem almost to sag a bit.  Westerns, on the other hand, are sleeker and more figure-conscious: they are all-over slimmer and their centre of gravity appears to be more in the chest causing them to sit in a more upright position (more space between the wire and their body mass).

This is the picture that helped me out--you can really see the difference in bills as well as the color contrasts--again, if I had had a nice row of kingbirds in the field, I might have been able to distinguish them quickly too!

Thick-billed is clearly the bird on the right, Tropical is clearly the bird on the left.  In the middle, then, are my two nemeses.  But the left of the two is  fatter--his belly is rather large and he appears not to have a neck, so this should be a Cassin's.  And it is--now I look at the coloring.  That makes the third bird from the left a Western.

When I returned to the field guide, I saw that the specific epithet of Western Kingbird is verticalis.  For all those folks who think Latin is a dead language, I have to say that it sure helped me here.  It makes sense!  Western Kingbird is vertical on the wire. 

Here's a photo that shows the vertical stance well:

Next week, I'm devoting time to peeps.....till then happy birding!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Introducing IBIS

Welcome to my blog.  If you are like me--you've been birding for a while, you enjoy it, and you like the field guides but find them always a little bit different from the bird that you see in the field--then maybe this blog will be of interest to you.  I am going to look at one identification issue a week, something that confused me in the field and share with you how I figured it out (if I did).  Your input--comments, questions, similar frustrations--is always welcome.

The name of my blog, IBIS--apart from being an apt acronym: Intermediate Bird Identification Stuggles--came to me because unless ibis are in high-breeding condition, the two dark North American ibis are difficult for me to distinguish.  And even in high breeding condition, why should the ibis with the band of white feathers around the facial skin be called "white-faced," while the one with white stripes on the face doesn't qualify for this nomen and instead is called "glossy."  Sure, you can go by the eye colour--but I can't always see that!  Thus, you can see that ibis really do provide me with a struggle, and thus provide an  appropriate name for my new blog.

My first real entry will be next weekend--it's going to be on tyrannical flycatchers...

Good Birding!