Friday, May 16, 2008

"Rich vs Dull" and other helpful ID tips

[Subtitled: "Don't believe everything you hear on the boardwalk."]

Disclaimer: There are no original photographs to illustrate this post. I find I am a much better birder than blogger. When a photo op presents itself, I am usually too busy studying the bird to remember to take its picture. All photos here are cribbed from my field guides, and credited at the end.

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One of the things I love about Magee Marsh is how generous other birders can be when you need a little
helpful hint (or three). Take the genus Catharus - a group of 5 very similar brown thrushes. They all have long pink legs and spotted breasts, they all can be found on the ground or on a low perch, they all have beautiful songs, and they can frustrate the hell out of you when you are trying to nail down an ID.

5 brown thrushes - how to tell them apart? (1)

One such bird was bugging me last Saturday. I was pretty sure it wasn't a Veery, which has the least amount of spotting on the breast, nor a Wood Thrush, which has the most, but then I got bogged down. Swainson's? Gray-cheeked? Hermit? I was lost till a very nice guy gave me a great way to sort them out.

"First look at the back," he advised, "and decide if it is rich or dull. Rich gives you one of two birds - Wood Thrush or Veery, both of which have a rusty red-brown back. Once you have it down to one of these two birds, look at the breast spotting. The Wood Thrush has large, bold, dark spots, while the Veery's spots are rather indistinct."

"Rich back" = Wood Thrush or Veery (1)
Now, that's pretty easy, isn't it?

"If the back is dull," he continued, "look at the tail. Is it rich or dull? A rich reddish tail can only be a Hermit Thrush."

The bottom bird in this picture (1)
has a dull back and a rich tail,

ergo, Hermit Thrush. We can do this!

"If the tail is dull, look at the head. Eye-rings and spectacles mean it's a Swainson's; no eye ring and you have a Gray-cheeked, the Catharus species with the least obvious field marks."

Now, this one is trickier, and requires
a good view of the head.
Still, it's not impossible, is it? (2)

Simple! Even I can remember that. (BTW, don't look for gray cheeks on a Gray-cheeked Thrush. That is about as useful as looking for a red belly on a Red-bellied Woodpecker.)

I was able to help someone else out on Friday. A kinglet was flitting about in the trees, as they do, hardly sitting still for a second before busily hurrying off to another spot. "Kinglet," someone said, and everyone else nodded, agreeing "kinglet," without specifying which species. Either people just assumed the species was understood, or nobody wanted to make a fool of him/herself by committing to a species.

Don't rely on these brightly colored crowns to ID a kinglet (1)
While the Golden-crowned isn't shy about showing off,
you will probably never see the ruby crown illustrated above in the field.

Thank God for newer birders, who aren't afraid to ask questions. A woman near me said, "Which kinglet is it? I can't see a ruby or golden crown." I knew this one, so was happy to jump in and show off. "It's a Ruby-crowned," I answered, "but don't look for the red crest to make your ID. Instead, look at the eye. An eye ring means it's a Ruby-crowned. A Golden-crowned will have a dark line through the eye and a white line above it," showing her the illustrations in my field guide.

Stripes versus circles. (2) Much easier to see than crowns.

Further along the boardwalk, another helpful birder gave me some pointers on distinguishing the two species of waterthrush, large warblers which are usually found on the ground near water. (The "water" part of the name is right, at least, but they're not thrushes.)

"is that a Northern or a Louisiana?" I asked, as the group excitedly pointed to a waterthrush working a wet, marshy area very close to the boardwalk. The cooperative bird hopped up on fallen logs and strutted up and down for us, giving us great looks from every angle. My mentor spoke knowledgeably, giving me a great and detailed lecture on the striping above the eye, that one is buff to yellow while the other is white, and how it flares out behind the eye in one species, and tapers back
in the other. I nodded and thought "I'm lost!" Then, he dropped a little gem, and I learned the most valuable lesson on ID'ing waterthrush. "Plus, look at the habitat," he added, almost as an aside. "It's shallow, still water. No self-respecting LOO-zee-anna would be caught dead here. They prefer rapidly moving streams."

Waterthrushes. Yeah, I see a vast difference. (Not!) (1)

Well, that caps it! No self-respecting LOO-zee-anna would be caught dead away from a bubbling stream. I can remember that, too.

In the "don't believe everything you hear" department, we come to the "great winter wren fall-out" that I heard about on Friday. Anxious for my Life Winter Wren, a bird which has moved close to the top of my Ten Most Wanted list, I jumped at the rumor that Winter Wrens were being seen in huge numbers along the boardwalk on Friday. Every wren I saw I studied closely.

House Wren.

House Wren.

House Wren.

Frustrated, I was focusing intently on a small, brown, wren-like bird creeping around under a fallen log. Knowing that Winter Wrens forage on the ground and are often described as having "mouse-like" appearance and behavior, I was sure I had my bird, until it came out from cover to reveal itself as yet another House Wren. I sighed and exclaimed, "Where are all these Winter Wrens I have been hearing about?" A near-by birder said, "Well, you might find a Winter Wren or two here, but the major fall-out was in early April."

Ah-HA! A light bulb went off in my head. Not everybody on the boardwalk is a better birder than I am. Some of them make the same silly mistakes I do, but they make them with such conviction that they sound believable. Hmmm - Now I'm wondering about that waterthrush expert ... What if a self-respecting LOO-zee-anna did happen to stop by the marsh that day?

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Reference illustrations blatantly stolen from:
(1) Peterson's "Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies," 4th edition, 1980

(2) "Identify Yourself, The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges"
by Bill Thompson, III and Julie Zickefoose

If I may, I'd like to add a plug for "Identify Yourself." It is great. If you have any trouble identifying any bird in the US, you should buy it. I own an autographed copy and was embarrassed to find the thrush tips were all in here. Guess I should read it, not just display it!


Lynne said...

This is an awesome post!! All of the id questions you addressed were ones I've had in the last few days. Great pointers. And I love the book "Identify Yourself" too. It's the most dog-eared and tattered bird guide I own! It's been a great help to me in identifying sparrows. Mine's not autographed though, maybe some day...

Lisa said...

When I read the title of this post I thought we were talking dating advice - lots of money can make the most boring conversationalist SO much more interesting...