Saturday, May 22, 2010

Black, White and Red all over...

When I started birding my criteria for a 'good' bird were size and immobility--that is to say that I appreciated herons most and warblers least! I have since broadened my perspective and actually enjoy the challenge of finding and identifying numerous warblers. But that still doesn't diminish my joy at easily identifiable birds, and I would have to say the Acorn Woodpecker is one of those.

It's not exactly stationary nor is it particularly big, but its block-like division into black, white and red makes it a hard bird to misidentify in the West (were I in the East, I'd have to at least consider its relatively close relative, Red-Headed Woodpecker, which has even more stringent color blocks, but this is where those range maps in all the field guides come in handy!) To me, Acorn Woodpeckers always look a bit clown-like--maybe that's partly due to their call that seems to say 'wake-up! wake-up! wake-up!'  Or maybe it's the fact that they're so social and are constantly chasing each other around, making me laugh at them.

I think of them as an Arizona bird--but that's just because I've seen them there.  When I read up on them in the Nat Geo's Complete Birds of North America, I found that they are accidental in BC.  This gives me hope that I'll see one in my native land!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Spotted Towhee

There are many things I love about my 'home and native land'--the way people so many people call out thank you on the bus here in Vancouver comes to mind--but probably one of the best things is that I have a 90% chance of seeing one of a pair of these beauties on my short walk from bus to office in the morning.  There's a hedge just outside my building and invariably a towhee is hopping around in there.  Given the fairly obvious difference in head color (females are brown, males glossy black), I feel quite confident in identifying which of the pair I am seeing.  I keep hoping to see some streaky babies...I can't imagine a better addition to my Towhee sightings!

Unlike most of the birds that pose protracted identification challenges for me, the Spotted Towhee is really quite easy--especially for a sparrow (think of distinguishing Cassin's and Botteri's.... or the various subspecies groups of Dark-eyed Juncos).  Even in flight, Spotted Towhees are recognizable by their big white tail spots, visible from afar.

Their call could potentially be confused with that of the Catbird, but because the latter are very rare here on the West Coast, I assume Spotted Towhee unless proven otherwise (I suppose that is a sign that I am no longer quite a beginner--I have lost the conviction that I am seeing something incredibly rare every day!).

Maybe the ease with which I can identify Spotted Towhees is the true source of my partiality for this large sparrow, but I like to think that it's more due to the bird's good looks and the attention it pays me at the beginning of my day.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Vote for the National Bird of Canada

Lincoln's Sparrow was first described in CANADA: in Labrador by Audubon and named for a CANADIAN, Tom Lincoln. Apart from being the most beautiful sparrow in my opinion, Lincoln's is found in all the CANADIAN provinces and territories. Though initially people might hesitate to choose a sparrow as a national bird, Lincoln's Sparrow's distinctive features and beautiful song will, I am sure, encourage people to make the effort to learn one more bird.

Red-tailed Hawk--the current frontrunner--would be a disappointment as the bird for CANADA. It was first described in Jamaica and its scientific name, Buteo jamaicensis, reflects that.

You can add your voice in favor of Lincoln's Sparrow by clicking here.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ring-billed Gull

Gulls have always been tricky for me--it seems that they have more plumages than other birds (first/second/third year; juvenile, adult, breeding/non-breeding...) and, frankly, too many of them are white, black and shades of grey.  Heermann's Gull is probably my favourite simply because I have seen them only in breeding plumage when their bills are so red that you can't mistake them for any other gull.
I was pretty good at distinguishing Ring-billed and Herring Gull, too, as they were the ones I saw most in New Jersey.  They were frequently in mixed flocks and  I learned to distinguish them by size comparison (though I admit that I also used leg color despite my usual prejudice against color as an identification criterion).  The Herring Gulls were reliably larger than than the Ring-billeds, in fact they were generally the largest gull around.  Now, however I find myself with a new set of gulls: both Herring and Ring-billed Gulls are not our 'local' species anymore (though they do occur).  You can understand my joy, then, when the other day I saw this fellow--and immediately welcomed it as a long lost friend.  Sadly, this individual is probably not long for this world--he was definitely weak and sickly which allowed my husband to get to close with the camera--but nonetheless, he had the yellowish legs, the ring on the bill and--joy, oh bliss, I discovered that Ring-billed can maintain its position of 'smaller' gull when I compare it to our current local resident: Glaucous-winged Gull.  So, by default, Ring-billed has started me on the way to learning another gull...