Thursday, September 1, 2022

Bird quiz answers

The moment you've been patiently awaiting: answers to the challenging photos I posted last week. If you haven't seen the quiz yet, click here to try your hand before you read today's answers.

And here we go!

1. January 2022, Arrowhead Marsh, Oakland, CA

A duck in bad light. Woo hoo!  It's compact, so likely a diving duck, and it appears all dark, so you might think female Bufflehead or Ruddy Duck. But the bill is not right for either: too big to be a Bufflehead and too small to be a Ruddy Duck's super ski-slope bill. So what other dark ducks are there? Well, if you're in an Oakland estuary in winter, e.g., Arrowhead Marsh, you might be seeing scoters.

And that's in fact what this duck is: a female Surf Scoter, maybe an adult, maybe a first-year, I can't tell. From this other angle the bill definitely looks more scoter-like, and you get a hint of the white just dusting the base of the bill. Female Bufflehead's white cheek would be much brighter, and a male winter Ruddy's cheek patch would also be much easier to see, even in poor light. A female Ruddy's striped face might be difficult to see in this light, but still her bill would be a different shape. Check your field guide for comparison.

2. January 2022, Berkeley, CA

Not a ton of field marks to go on here, but there aren't a lot of birds that might perch on a monument up high. Pigeon? Maybe. Gray head, long body might fit. But the wingtip that extends past the tail wouldn't fit a pigeon, and even from this unusual angle the bird's posture looks more vertical than a pigeon's might be. It also looks slimmer than I'd expect a pigeon to be.

As it turns out, it's not a pigeon but a pigeon's worst nightmare: a Peregrine Falcon. Now you can see the hooded appearance, dark back, and white belly that identify these both as Peregrines, even at a distance. These birds are Annie and Grinnell, a pair that nested on UC Berkeley's Campanile from 2016 to 2022. Grinnell died this year, but new male Alden quickly took his place and helped Annie fledge two chicks.

3. March 2022, Inverness, CA

Brown bird on the ground in Northern California in late winter. By the habitat, season, location, plumage color and general body shape we might think Hermit Thrush or California Towhee or some other kind of sparrow. 

A Hermit Thrush would have a contrasting rusty tail, which this bird doesn't, so we can rule that out. A California Towhee's chest and belly are unmarked, its vent area is rusty, and its tail is longer, so cross that off. 

Some other kind of sparrow, then? Its back is unmarked uniform grayish brown, unlike a Song Sparrow or many other winter sparrows, but it does have markings on its underside. Thus, you can go ahead and call this a Fox Sparrow, specifically the Sooty form found on the Pacific Coast. Now that it's turned around, its bicolored bill shows, as do the triangle-shaped chest marks that merge into a central breast spot (or blob).

4. March 2022, Inverness, CA

Black and white birds, not much of a tail, one shows a red cap and a light breast. Black, white, and red usually mean woodpecker, and that would be right. In California, the black and white woodpeckers are Downy, Hairy, Nuttall's, and Pileated. However, all but the Pileated have white checks or other patterning on the back or wings, not solid black. And these are too small to be Pileateds.

The only California woodpecker with solid black and white (no bars or spots) and a good amount of red on the top of the head, not the back, is the Acorn Woodpecker. In this photo you can see the clownlike face and light iris on the top bird, and the bottom bird shows its sharply pointed woodpecker bill. The top bird also shows the pointed tail feathers typical of woodpeckers. These birds sat and preened in the light of sunrise before flying off to start their day.

5. March 2022, Inverness, CA

The upright posture, no visible legs, and choice of perch should say bird of prey to you. Is it an owl with all that speckling? No, owls have big round heads, and this bird's head is not big enough. The bulky body indicates a buteo, the genus of soaring hawks like the Red-tailed Hawk. Red-tails are widespread and common, so let's apply the Red-tail test. Does it have a red tail? No. But young Red-tails don't have a red tail; their tails have alternating thin light and dark bands. Does it show light colored scapular (shoulder) feathers shaped vaguely like a V against darker back feathers? I don't see that field mark, so I don't think this is a Red-tailed Hawk.

I also don't think this is an accipiter, the genus of Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Their tails are banded like this but are much longer relative to the body, and the body overall would be less bulky than this bird.

This bird's tail shows alternating thin white and thick dark bands and is not very long. Its back is speckled, and its wings have a black and white checkerboard appearance. Those field marks add up to make it an adult Red-shouldered Hawk, sometimes called "the accipiter of the forest" because of its preference for trees and its very vocal nature, much like accipiters. This bird perched in the light of sunrise and preened several mornings in a row. It vocalized a lot then took off to pursue its day.

6. May 2022, Tigard, OR

Yellowish green songbird....goldfinch? No wing bars. Tanager? Same, no wing bars. Kinglet? It's all about the wing bars again. So that leaves...

A spring warbler! Yay! Here in the PNW we have only about a dozen warbler species to tackle, unlike the midwest and east with their three dozen. This bird showed up adjacent to my yard, and I first noticed it because of its voice. I took a ton of photos and loved that many of them showed just the tiniest hint of a field mark and would be great quiz photos.

So, no wing bars: that rules out a lot of warblers, like Yellow-rumped and Townsend's. Orange-crowned Warblers don't have wing bars and could be colored like this, but look at the bit of its head peeking out. It's gray. And I can see white around the eye. But there's a gray-headed form of the Orange-crowned Warbler with eye arcs and a light eyeline, isn't there? Yes, but from what I can tell from Sibley's, they are also much less yellow, so this bird's body color wouldn't fit. Plus, I don't see a light line through the eye, only the arc above it.

How about a female MacGillivray's? Maybe, but the white above the eye looks like it might be continuous rather than broken...hard to tell, though. And honestly I don't have enough experience with MacGillivray's to point out any other big differences.

So that leaves us with a warbler, no wing bars, a gray head, and a (possibly) complete white eye ring. If you look really close you can also see the tiny reddish feathers on its crown, making this an adult male Nashville Warbler.

Tell us how you did in the comments!

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Bird quiz

I got a new to me camera earlier this year and immediately started photographing birds. Some shots turned out great, but of course there were plenty of questionable ones, too, so I'm putting the slightly more challenging ones here for you to test your skills on. I've disabled comments so everyone gets a fair shot at guessing.

Look for any visible field marks, including bill shape and body shape, and pay attention to where it is, what it's doing. Consider the lighting and don't assume coloration based on oddly lit photos.

1. January 2022, Arrowhead Marsh, Oakland, CA

2. January 2022, Berkeley, CA

3. March 2022, Inverness, CA

4. March 2022, Inverness, CA

5. March 2022, Inverness, CA

6. May 2022, Tigard, OR

I'll post answers and better photos in a week or so. In the meantime, enjoy!

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Fall and Winter Classes 2022

Check the Take a Class with Me page to see the latest updates on my classes and field trips.

Hope to see you out there!

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

It's going to be a busy birdy spring!

I'm pleased to announce that I'm returning to offering in-person birding by ear classes through several Portland-area organizations. Sign up today as they will fill fast! Still offering Zoom courses too, which don't have the same attendance limits.

I hope to see you online or in the field!

TreeSong Nature Awareness and Retreat Center

Portland Audubon (Choose Field Classes, or Waitlisted In-Person Field Classes if they've filled)

Hoyt Arboretum

Tualatin Hills Parks and Rec

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Do you hear that song? Golden-crowneds are back!

The more seasons you’ve been birding, the more you know what changes to expect with each one. Many Northwest birders eagerly anticipate the fall arrival of golden-crowned sparrows, and I am definitely in that camp. Others enjoy seeking out shorebird or raptor migration hot spots, which I’ve enjoyed as well. But the golden-crowned is so accommodating it comes right to your backyard, no travel required.
Brown nonbreeding plumage. Photo by Greg Gillson

I usually hear my first fall golden-crowned—oh dear me—singing from the fading blackberries. Like many sparrows, they’re not showy, they’re kinda brown, and they’re even more brown in the nonbreeding season, but their voice is always distinctive and evocative. Oh dear me, I'm so tired the bird sings in a somewhat wistful, descending, three-note phrase, sometimes with a bit of a flourish. It’s one mnemonic that’s easy to remember and not often confused with other bird voices, especially at this time of year in the Willamette Valley.

Sexy breeding plumage complete with golden crown.
Photo by Greg Gillson
I’ve never been to their northern breeding grounds in Alaska and British Columbia. How those songs must fill the air when the males are full of testosterone and the urge to mate. Are their breeding-ground songs different from the winter wistful songs I know so well? They are certainly more frequent! Most songbirds quit singing once nesting season is through, or at least they slow down a lot. On sunny winter days, song sparrows and house finches will get their groove on, but for the most part what we hear on the land are calls, shorter, simpler sounds made by flock members, between pairs, or in alarm when that Cooper’s hawk is near.

So when the first mournful song of the golden-crowned catches my ear, I smile. They may just sing for a few weeks then quiet down for the season, but that sound officially marks the start of fall for me. I’ll watch for them and other wintering sparrows like fox, Lincoln’s, and white-throated when I visit hedgerows, blackberry borders, wetlands, pretty much everywhere except deep forest. And since they’re in my yard, I’ll toss some millet out and “forget” to rake up leaves so they’ve got some good scratching spots. I’ll reacquaint myself with their quieter calls, and once spring rolls around they’ll start up with oh dear me again before leaving the valley for parts north. Good luck, little sparrows! That’s a helluva journey.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The waxwings of fall

Fall in the Pacific Northwest is a bit of a limbo time for birding. Ducks are between plumages and are mostly brown, migrants like flycatchers and warblers and tanagers are on their way south, and osprey and cliff swallow nests sit empty. Shorebirds are coming through, and they can be fun and challenging (she said diplomatically), but frankly, fall is a bit of a letdown for me after all the excitement of spring and early summer.

Until the waxwings show up.

My mom had a Golden guide to birds in the map slot of her '72 Datsun, and if I was bored, I'd thumb through it. The birds that caught my eye were the showy ones like wood duck and painted bunting, but the waxwing, for all its brown tones, was pretty showy, too. Lemon-yellow tipped tail, cherry-red wing-feather tips? And a black mask? Neat.

I don't remember when I saw my first live-and-in-person cedar waxwing, but over the years it's become a bird I expect to see in the deciduous or riparian habitats of Oregon and California, where I've done most of my birding. I even stumbled upon a nest of waxwings so big they were due to fledge any minute (the post's video no longer works, sorry about's a bit old, I guess).

Fall is a great time to find waxwings because they gather in large, noisy flocks (often with robins) to feast on the fruit adorning many trees and shrubs in the greater Portland area, both ornamentals and natives. A friend of mine has two Golden Raindrops crab apple trees, and each year dozens of waxwings and robins show up to strip the tasty fruit from the tree.

The flocks I saw earlier in the fall were mostly juvenile birds with one or two adults mixed in. They are easy to tell apart from the sleek adults: the crest isn't grown in, the mask isn't complete, and the chest shows dark streaks. The tail is dipped in yellow, but the red hasn't appeared on the wingtips yet.

I must admit I began this post over a month ago but never finished it. Soon the waxwings weren't as plentiful, and I thought my post was now out of date.

Last week I visited the Bob's Red Mill store in Milwaukie with a friend, and we both noticed how the ornamental trees there were heavily laden with red berries and remarked that the waxwings obviously hadn't found this patch yet.

I was back there today and, as you might have guessed, they've found it. Big time. Waxwings and robins are swarming all around the area, from the trees at Bob's to others in nearby office parks.

Another waxwing, the Bohemian, occurs in North America, but it prefers higher latitudes, breeding through Alaska and Canada and barely entering the lower 48 near the Canadian border in winter. They occur irregularly in Oregon in the Wallowas and the Blue Mountains, I believe during only the coldest of winters. That one is not on my life list yet. It resembles the more common cedar waxwing, but it's a bulkier bird and has red, yellow, and white in the wings. Several years ago during a heavy snow, one did show up with a flock of cedars. Luckily they landed in the northeast Portland backyard of an accomplished birder, so there was no question about its identity. That snow day was a lucky one for Patty!

So when you're out and about birding, don't forget to listen for the ZeeeZeeeZeee high-pitched trills of the waxwings. They're still out there feasting away!

Thanks to Jen Sanford and Greg Gillson for allowing me use their most excellent photos.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Little Green Birds

Recently, I received an email from a birder asking for bird identification help.  In November on the Oregon coast, he'd photographed what he believed to be a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, but wanted confirmation. He'd included two very clear photos of a greenish grayish yellow (or yellowish greenish gray) bird with two light wing bars, a pointy beak, and a whitish teardrop eye ring. Certainly could be a flycatcher!

Here is a photo of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher (this is not the photo he sent):

The field marks are all there...greenish grayish yellow (or yellowish greenish gray!), pointy beak, one of two wing bars visible, whitish teardop eye ring.

Now here are the photos he sent:

It was not a flycatcher he had photographed! It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a maddeningly similar bird in looks, but vastly different in seasonality and behavior.

First of all, by November most of our flycatchers have left North America in favor of Central and South American forests. The kinglet, however, is a year-round resident and is commonly found at low elevations in fall and winter.

But even if a flycatcher did stick around past its usual departure date, it wouldn't behave like the perpetually bouncy kinglet. The stoic flycatcher sits still as it waits for a flying insect to come near, then darts off its perch to catch the bug, returning to the same or a nearby perch. The frenetic kinglet, on the other hand, gleans tiny insects and insect eggs from bark, the base of leaves, or in between needles, often hovering for a moment as it hunts. Frequently flicking its wings, it works the foliage of one bush then moves on to the next. No sitting still for this guy!

And though their plumage at first looks similar, the birds are different sizes (a wee kinglet is a mere 4 inches long!), and the kinglet's beak is tweezer-like compared to the flycatcher's more flattened beak (think about hunting style--would you try to catch a flying insect with tweezers or tongs?). In addition, the flycatcher's head has a slight peak to it, and the male kinglet sports its namesake: a secret ruby-red patch on its crown that it can reveal at will.

The next time you're faced with a little green bird, remember to think about not only what it looks like, but what it's doing and what time of year it is. Behavior and seasonality are often the key to identification of similar species, though of course the birds don't always stick to those "rules."

Soon enough these two will switch places and we'll be tearing our hair out over the oh-so-similar species of flycatcher hunting in our summer lowlands, while the kinglets will be nesting high up in the Cascades. Enjoy our winter birds!