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!