Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Empid Enigma: To Catch a Flycatcher

There are several genera of birds that are notoriously hard to identify. Here in North America, beginning and experienced bird-watchers alike (ok, mostly beginner) scratch their collective heads over Sparrows, and Gulls, Shorebirds and Flycatchers. Similar plumages and overlapping ranges make it hard to pick apart certain species from some of these groups, and the field guides never seem to quite cover all the bases. For my money, the empidonax flycatchers are some of the most difficult, and I love them for it.
Small and silent...they are birds of the shadow.
Sure, Gulls are tough, especially in their intermediate/immature plumages. But once they're in their adult molt they're not as tricky, at least not for those with a bit of experience (not that I have much). The same goes for most Shorebirds when they're in their breeding plumage, so at least for part of the year they can be identified without too much headache--although it is a shame so many are up in the Arctic circle during that time. Sparrows are problematic too, and are usually the first difficult group that birders have to tackle. While their plumages are subtle and similarly colored, the Sparrows can at least usually be ID'd by plumage alone. This brings me back to the empid Flycatchers...those look-alike, act-alike, conspicuous and ambiguous flighty little buggers that don't really change their ubiquitous plumages throughout the year or ever take it easy on a fledgling birder. And so, more for my own review and edification than anything else, here's an inspection of some befuddling Flycatchers.

I first saw this bird in February around Patagonia Lake in southeast AZ and thought it was a Gray Flycatcher. Gray's and Dusky Flycatcher's look very similar and frequent similar haunts. Grays have a slightly longer tail and the adults are a bit paler. I think I'll stick to Gray for this bird, but some nagging feeling says this could turn into a Dusky at any moment...or even something much, much more embarrassing.
Another important clue in differentiating Gray Flycatchers from Dusky is mandible length. Provided one gets a nice profile view of the bird, which is thankfully easy with these vain little birds, the Gray Flycatcher's beak is much longer relative to its head. This bird, seen on the De Anza trail in southeast Arizona, was being a real stick in the mud, identification wise, until it flew lower and gave a profile picture.
Notice too how the apparent yellow hues on this bird in the first picture are much more drab on the more dully-lit second. Overcast skies...they help to out an Gray Flycatcher too.
Slightly smaller than the Gray Flycatcher, which also seems to be the most common of these first three, the Dusky Flycatcher also has a short, dark bill and prefers lower, thicker brush to set up its insect ambuscades.

I've been told though that all those bets are off in migration, and while my first inclination was to call the following bird a Dusky, the long primaries and stubby bill have experts saying Hammond's. One way or the other, the empids win this round...
Going just by general color and demeanor, a Hammond's can turn into a Dusky or Gray Flycatcher too, but luckily they tend to prefer more coniferous perches and have noticeable longer primary projections on their wings, meaning their primary feathers protrude noticeably farther downward from their secondaries.
With other empids, the wings extend to the base of the tail, but the Hammond's has a longer reach relative to its body. Compared to the Gray Flycatcher, it also has a stumpy beak and a more pronounced vest.
Here in Phoenix, the Pacific-Slope vs. Cordilleran war rages at the Desert Botanical Gardens every summer. Both birds can pass through the area during migration, and they're physically indistinguishable if they keep quiet, which of course they do. How many Gulls or Sparrows or Shorebirds are there that are literally indiscernible from each other unless you hear them call (Probably lots more than I am aware of huh...)?

I see these Flycatchers with every later spring and summer visit to the Desert Botanical Gardens. Because the Cordillerans typically stay in the higher altitudes, the general opinion among the DBG regulars is that the Flycatchers at the DBG must be Pacific-Slope. However, it's pretty far inland for Pacific Slopes too, so it still doesn't seem any more likely to me that it's one or the other based just on their normal ranges. The Sibley's field guide doesn't show either coming into the Phoenix area much, but the Cordilleran's summer range, though normally at higher altitude, is nearer by. Sibley only shows the Pacific-slopes coming through central Arizona during migration. Empids like the one below can be found at the DBG throughout the whole summer, even on the same perches, which makes me think they're not just migrating through, but are actually sticking for more than a few days. Given the options, it seems to me that the likelier bird is the Cordilleran, which at least is a summer resident in nearby parts of the state--even if I must contravene The #1 World Birder's 4th rule about trying to be a better birder.
After so much empid stress, it's nice to find repose with a few easier specimens. So the Olive-sided Flycatcher isn't actually an empid; it's a Pewee. I just included it here because I think they're very cool and really appreciate that they're straightforward to ID. These guys drip class, and you know they like to drink dry martinis, with a couple olives...
The empids mentioned so far have had a western flavor to them. Not to worry! There are plenty of hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, fuss-strating empids out east too. Don't quit now; don't let them win; here we go!
The bird photographed below is probably a Willow Flycatcher. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I have a hard time discerning these guys from Western Wood Pewees. The Wood Pewees like to perch up higher, whereas these Willows like the little scrub stuff near marshy water, case in point:
I'm wanted to call this guy an Acadian Flycatcher because it seemed too light all round to be Willow. When I photographed this bird in southeast Pennsylvania, it was within Acadian range. However, the Acadians are supposed to be high tree dwellers like the Pewees, and this fellow was working the low shrubs. Upon further review, I thought this might be an Alder Flycatcher, but honestly its face seems too light to match any of those birds really well. It seems to lack the darker lores of both the Alder and Willow Flycatchers, which brings me back to the lighter-faced Acadian...There's always an answer, sure, but sometimes you'll just never know it.
Anyway, here's a definite Willow Flycatcher. However, it's not obvious from the photo, since the beak looks too orange and the head looks too crested/peaked--in fact he looks a lot like the ambiguous bird above. But unlike the other empids featured in this post, this guy let out a mighty "RITZbew." It vocalized and so did I! Yeehaw!! Definitive ID baby!
Many birders have gone half mad and half insane (which, in case you're wondering, means one is 'insad') trying to sort these guys out. In truth, it's more crazy-making than trying to contemplate the cardinality of infinite sets that can be greater or smaller than each other while simultaneously being infinite! When the empid finally calls, it is a sweet mercy. Now if only I could recognize their calls.

Thank heavens for the Vermilion and other Flycatchers like it, which restore my faith in the Flycatcher family and in myself.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Birding With Bella

Afton Forest Preserve

Geese flying with wind turbines in the background

Bella, my Doberman/Duck-Toller mix, has walked with me on countless occasions. I've spent a great deal of time training her to heel by my side and not pull on her leash.

Every time we walk I am observing nature, but for the most part I do not carry much gear when I have her with (especially the DSLR with large lens). I am even without binoculars often.

Fighting a bit of cabin fever, I decided to load up the camera bag and see if together we could find some birds. So we headed to a local forest preserve known as Afton (DeKalb County in northern Illinois).

Pond With Canada Geese

Afton is a wonderful place with easy, wide trails and a lot of open vistas. The trails circle a fairly large pond that is almost always active with birds. This is the spot where a Vermillion Flycatcher spent some time a few years ago.

We took the largest of the looped trails and took our time. Birding with a dog can be a blessing because she loves to stop and sniff just about everything and it can help to slow the pace down and focus eyes and ears on finding wildlife.

Bella Nova Scotia on a Bench

Bella is good off leash but I kept her leashed for our hike as this particular park has had problems with dogs running loose (with newly posted signs).

I had to juggle camera, binoculars, tripod, and leash but it was all manageable. We even spent some time relaxing on the observation deck together.

Afton Forest Preserve

As for seeing any birds, we didn't find too many. Spring has been slow to get here, and the birds were mostly common stuff. However, hearing Red-winged Blackbirds and Eastern Meadowlarks in full song reminded me that good weather is coming soon and there will be many opportunities to go birding with Bella.

Red-winged Blackbird Red-winged Blackbird

Friday, March 29, 2013

Birdscapes Contest: Crossley ID Raptor Guide Giveaway

For me, birding is as much about enjoying the birdscapes as it is about seeing the birds themselves.

One of the things I love about the new Crossley ID Raptor Guide are the amazing birdscape shots.  I would buy this book just for the amazing birdscapes shown in the plates.  Every time I pick it up, I just sit there gazing at these amazing scenes.  And as I look at them, I can't help but enjoy trying to figure out where these shots were actually taken.  Some I recognize, some I can guess at.

So I thought I would share the joy.  Here are seven birdscapes from the guide.  Whoever can most accurately guess where these shots were taken will win a new copy of the Crossley ID Raptor Guide.  Just email me your guesses, with as much detail as possible (more fine print at the bottom of this post) to Birdchaser AT hotmail DOT com by the end of Thursday, April 4.

Enjoy and good luck!

Birdscape #1
Birdscape #2
Birdscape #3
Birdscape #4
Birdscape #5
Birdscape #6

Birdscape #7
Small Print: This is supposed to be fun, so I don't want to have to say too much here.  This is kind of like Andrew Sullivan's View From Your Window Contest.  Email me the location of each of these shots.  Do not post answers in the comments here, so we can all play!  Whoever gets the most locations correct wins.  If you don't know an exact location, proximity counts.  If there is a tie, details about exactly where the shot was taken from will be considered.  If I still have to break a tie, I will pick the names out of a hat.  Email answers to birdchaser AT hotmail DOT com by midnight at the end of Thursday, April 4 EDT.  Correct answers and contest winner will be announced on Friday, April 5.  Have fun and good luck!

April 6 Update: Winner and correct locations are now posted here.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review: Backyard Birds - Looking Through the Glass

A lovely treasure arrived in my mailbox this afternoon, and I read the whole thing and enjoyed every image from cover to cover in one sitting.

Glen Apseloff the author and photographer is a gentleman in Ohio, fairly new to birding, but not a stranger to working behind a lens. Once he made the conscious decision to notice what was happening outside of his windows, he was impressed, especially with the birds, the varieties and colors, that he never would have imagined could be in his own backyard.

He then set out on a mission to photograph as many backyard birds as he could, with self imposed rules, that it had to be through the glass windows and no flash photography. He and his wife set themselves to installing feeders and plantings to attract a wide variety of species. He was hoping to get enough images to make a calendar for friends and family, but a calendar could not contain the awesomeness of his backyard birds, so it become a book.

Most birds portrayed have a really nice image or two, some several; some are breathtaking. Apseloff shares fun facts about each species and makes a few comments on identification, molt, and sexual dimorphism and does so with a tone of a sharing friend. It's not heady and it is very pleasant to view and read.

This book does not read like a traditional birding book from a traditional publisher. It's more know...real and raw...and delightful. There are plenty of great books about backyard birding. This book is not the "how to". This book contains the results of doing it right.

I'm inspired by Apseloff to begin this mission of photographing my backyard birds as he did. I'm inspired to pursue bird friendly gardening with renewed vigor.

Birders are often too judgmental about how other people enjoy birding. (Have you seen diatribes on the ABA Facebook page over the last couple months? Yikes!) Who would have thought that one man's enjoyment of backyard birds could be this wonderful and inspiring. This charming book brought me back the basics of why birding is fun. Thanks Glen. Great work!!!

Backyard Birds - Looking Through the Glass is published by Ohio Distinctive Publishing and can be purchased from their website.

Identifying Waterthrushes

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Louisiana Waterthrush
Waterthrushes are wonderful birds.  They're warblers, but their coloring doesn't look like that of a warbler, and they don't seem to act much like warblers either.  They forage for insects in leaf litter near water, so I like them because you don't get "warbler neck" trying to find them. We have two waterthrushes: Louisiana Waterthrush and Northern Waterthrush.  Here in Central Florida, we've been seeing Louisiana Waterthrushes for a couple weeks now, and Northern Waterthrushes are just arriving (I haven't seen one yet this Spring).  It's pretty easy to tell them apart if you're able to hear them sing, but otherwise distinguishing between the two can be pretty difficult to do. In fact, these are two of the species that I have had the most difficulty learning to tell apart.  But it can be done.  There are several ways to reliably identify them in the field.

Northern Waterthrush
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Northern Waterthrush
Off-white eyebrow stripe | Spotting on the throat
Dense Streaking on Breast | Smaller, thinner bill
Northern Waterthrushes can be distinguished from Louisiana Waterthrushes in a number of ways:
  1. They have an eybrow stripe that is usually yellowish or buffy white, not bright white, and the stripe narrows behind the eye.
  2. They usually have a spotted throat.
  3. They should have more streaking on the breast, and the underparts usually appear somewhat yellowish. The color of the breast generally matches the color of the flanks.
  4. They have bills that are somewhat thinner and shorter than Louisiana Waterthrushes.
  5. They have legs that are dusky pink in color.
  6. They tend to prefer to be near flat, non-running water.
  7. They tend to bob their tails up and down.

Louisiana Waterthrush
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Louisiana Waterthrush
Bold, white eye stripe, thick behind the eye
No spotting on throat | less dense streaking on breast
Pink legs | longer bill
Louisiana Waterthrushes can be distinguished from Northern Waterthrushes in similar ways:
  1. They have an eyebrow stripe that is usually bright white, and the stripe stays thick behind the eye.
  2. They usually have a clean white throat.
  3. They should have less streaking on the breast, and underparts should appear white with buffy flanks.
  4. They have bills that are somewhat thicker and longer than Northern Waterthrushes.
  5. In Spring, their legs tend to be brighter pink in color.
  6. They tend to prefer running water (though I have seen them by the shores of ponds).
  7. They tend to bob their tails with a more circular motion.
  8. Overall, Louisiana Waterthrushes have a more clean and tidy appearance compared to Northern Watherthrushes, since the breast, supercilium (eyebrow) and throat are always white.
For me, I first look at they eyebrow stripe, throat and streaking on the breast.  Since I have red-green colorblindness, I don't use color unless I can get a photo to show others, though I've found I can tell the difference between bright colored legs and dusky legs.  Also, notice how often I say "usually" and "normally" instead of "always." Seeing one characteristic may not give you a firm identification.  But pile up a few, and you'll be able to make reliable identifications.

Okay, so now for a test. For me the best way I learned was to see both species in the field (along with other birds with similar appearance) and have to through the process of identifying them, getting them wrong, learning why, and then getting it right.  Since I can't bring the field onto the blog, below I've added five photos.  What are they? Feel free to leave your answers in the comments below. And just so you know, they aren't all waterthrushes!

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Mystery Bird #1
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Mystery Bird #2
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Mystery Bird #3
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Mystery Bird #4
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Mystery Bird #5
- Scott Simmons

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Crossbill Month

The calendar may think it's spring, but I beg to differ. If it was spring I would have a yard full of robins, sparrows, grackles and blackbirds.

Instead, what I have is a yard full of Red Crossbills. These are not my usual yard birds, and when the first pair arrived I was thrilled, and couldn't grab the camera fast enough. Soon there were eight, then more were flying in each day. Soon they were at all the feeders, juggling for position with the thirty or so Common Redpolls who have been living in the yard all winter.
The feisty little redpolls were at first a little bemused at not having the food to themselves. They soon recovered though, and proceeded to push their way into the front. The sheer numbers of these little finches have all but cleared the yard of House Sparrows and House Finches this winter.
Admittedly, I have never spent this much time studying crossbills at close range, but I was under the impression that males were red. What they are is reddish, pale red, reddish-green and a hundred shades in between. "Plumage highly variable" is no exaggeration in this species.
The noticeably crossed bill tips on these birds are adept at prying open cones to extract the seeds. Small items are swallowed whole and they certainly don't have any problem eating at this feeder. On a snowy day the crossbills and redpolls can empty this feeder in a day, and it holds six pounds of sunflower chips. We are very popular at the bird store.
This winter has seen enormous numbers of both Red and White-winged crossbills in this city. Curiously, a birding friend four blocks away has had White-winged Crossbills in her yard this winter, and no Red. I've not had any White-winged, so I made quick trip to her house to get some comparison photos. Naturally when I got there the adults had all departed, but one photo-hogging juvenile was happy to pose for a series of photo ops. He was still sitting there giving me his best profile when I left.

Red crossbills live almost exclusively in coniferous forests. They are so dependent on conifer seeds they even feed them to their young. As a result, they can breed any time they find a sufficient supply of food, even in the depths of winter. I am now keeping a close watch on my flock, looking for signs of the next generation in my spruce trees!
- Pat Bumstead - Bird Canada

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Panurus biarmicus - Bigotudo (Bearded Reedling)

Editor's Note: welcomes Jose Miguel Grande Gutierrez, a new monthly contributor from Spain. His posts will be in both English and Spanish. Translation provided by Robert Mortensen. Bienvenido al equipo Jose! Welcome to the team Jose!

Debo dar las gracias a por dejarme formar parte de este maravilloso lugar de encuentro de los amantes de las aves y de la naturaleza en general. Un abrazo desde Pamplona-Navarra España para todas y todos.

I want to thank for letting me be part of this wonderful meeting place for bird lovers and lovers of nature in general. A hug from Pamplona-Navarra Spain for everyone.
Panurus biarmicus, o bigotudo, es una pequeña ave perteneciente al orden de las Passeriformes, que pertenece a la familia de las Timaliidae. Su longitud es de unos 12 centímetros, su peso aproximado es de unos 18 gramos y suele vivir unos 3 años, se distingue por su gran bigotera grande y negra en los machos, la cabeza es de un azul grisáceo brillante, su interior es de color café tostado y posee una larga cola, las hembras son prácticamente parduscas pero no dejan de ser hermosas.

Panurus biarmicus - Bearded Reedling:

The Bearded Reedling or Bearded Parrotbill (Bigotudo in Spanish - translated as mustachioed, whiskered or bearded) is a small bird belonging to the order Passeriformes, which belongs to the family Timaliidae (or Panuridae depending on your source). The length is about 12 centimeters, and weighs approximately 18 grams and usually lives about three years. It is distinguished by its large black mustache in males. The head is grayish blue bright color. The body a toasted coffee color. It has a long tail. Females are almost brownish but they are still beautiful.
Esta especie es especialista de humedales en Navarra(España) lo podemos localizar en la Laguna de Pitillas y en la Laguna de las Cañas, reproduciéndose colonialmente en grandes carrizales junto a lagos o en pantanos. Come gusanos y orugas de los juncos en verano, y semillas de las cabezuelas del junco Phragmitesen en invierno, de hecho, su sistema digestivo cambia para enfrentarse con las muy diferentes dietas estacionales llegando a consumir hojarascas o incluso fango de las partes inferiores de los carrizos.

This species is a wetlands specialist in Navarra, Spain. We can find them in Laguna de Pitillas and Laguna de las Cañas, breeding colonially in large reedbeds along lakes or in swamps. It eats worms and caterpillars among the reeds in summer, and the seeds of phragmites in winter. In fact, they actually change their digestive system to cope with the very different seasonal diets. They are sometimes known to consume leaf litter or mud at the bottoms of the reeds.
Entre el Quebrantahuesos y el Bigotudo pueden existir rasgos comunes ornamentales, colas largas, grandes bigotes, cabezas grisáceas y tonos anaranjados es decir lo que llamarían muchos biólogos evolución convergente donde especies distintas separadas filogenéticamente(CIENCIA QUE ESTUDIA LA RELACIÓN EVOLUTIVA ENTRE DISTINTAS ESPECIES),comparten similares mecanismos de evolución de los caracteres fenotipicos(el fenotipo es cualquier característica detectable de un ORGANISMO(estructural, bioquímico, fisiológico o conductual. Los bigotes y las largas colas son atributos de selección sexual o selectiva en sus hábitats.

Between the Bearded Vulture and the Beared Reedling there may be common ornamental traits: long tails, mustaches, gray heads with orange tones. It is what biologists call convergent evolution where many different species separated phylogenetically (science that studies the evolutionary relationship between different species), share similar mechanisms of evolution of phenotypic traits (the phenotype is any detectable characteristic of an organism (structural, biochemical, physiological or behavioral.) The mustaches and long tails are attributes of sexual selection or selective in their habitats.

CARE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, INFINITE RESPECT AND LOVE. Do not think it too much effort. The legacy that we leave our children will be our greatest gift. Let us make sure the Bearded Reedling never disappears.

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