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Sunday, September 23, 2012

How Not to Identify a Bird

We’re going to start this post the same way I started out my last one. I have the afternoon off from work, I drive up to the Few’s Ford parking lot, and I exit my car. From the woods, I can hear an odd clucking, a cuckoo. I search for it, and before long it sits up on a bare branch allowing me to get photos. A dark, thin bill. A dull eyering. Small size. Everything points to one ID in my mind: Black-billed Cuckoo. But, as the discussion of the bird continued, it became clear this was actually a young Yellow-billed Cuckoo. And everything I know is wrong.

My mistake? Relying on field marks. On some level in one’s birding career, they stop using field marks to identify a bird. Instead, you rely on the overall impression of a bird, and by gestalt you immediately know its ID. Every once in a while, a bird throws you for a loop, and you begin to register field marks to try and find an answer to its identity. Sometimes you have to take a step back though, and acknowledge that even with an unknown bird, its general impression can give important clues. While many of the field marks appear to point towards Black-billed Cuckoo, the overall impression of the bird is wrong. The bill is actually a little too small, and its vocalizations are too guttural. Plus the tail is too small.

A young Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Can't you tell?

First off, why does the tail look small? It’s missing tail feathers, which is important because that’s a sign of molting, and a heavy molt like this would make it harder for a migrant to continue on its southerly journey. It’s hard to see in most of the photos, but you can just make out a pale area continuing inward from the beak towards the eyes. They aren’t feathers – no, this bird is a fledgling, and the pale area is the gape it retains from its time in the nest. It’s late in the year, and most field guides indicate this plumage doesn’t continue past August, but cuckoos are apparently notoriously late breeders. Plus, I blame global warming.

You always hear about confusing fall warblers, but never confusing fall cuckoos.

So why is the bill so thin and black? Turns out, some young Yellow-billed Cuckoos actually have dark bills in the nest, and even fewer retain that past fledging. In addition, young birds don’t have very large bills to begin with, but the real kicker lies in the bird’s feathers. They’re shaggy and fluffy, not sleek like those of most cuckoos. This bird is in juvenal plumage, that awkward stage when a bird is just out of the nest and learning to fly. The fluffy feathers obscure part of the beak, making it look even smaller than it should.

How a Yellow-billed Cuckoo is supposed to look - sleek, slender, and with a big honkin' yellow bill!

And what about those weird sounds the bird was making, that call and response with another cuckoo in the woods? It seems this was the call of a juvenile bird, and while it maintained the tempo of a Black-billed Cuckoo, it’s growling, guttural nature is unmistakably Yellow-billed. It’s something I should have noticed in the field, but the call was so strange I pretty much dispelled the idea of Yellow-billed Cuckoo from my mind.

So there you have it. A mistaken ID, but one resulting from a perfect storm of odd and poorly-known circumstances. This could have been identified correctly in the field, but it takes an expertise much greater than mine. You can’t look at this bird and use its field marks to ascertain its identity. You have to know so much more – about its breeding habits, about its growth cycle, about its social behavior. You have to understand the bird’s whole biology to figure out its identity, and until you do, you’re just a guy looking at pictures in a field guide. The whole thing is an experience always remember, and for the rest of my life, I’ll never again mis-identify a fledgling Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a black bill. You could say I… won’t get fooled again.


Friday, September 21, 2012

When It Rains, It Pours

::ROBERT'S EDIT:: Check out the post above for a discussion about the correct ID for this bird!

Migration is really heating up around here, but I can’t fully enjoy it. I’ve been stuck in the work routine recently, which means my birding (and by extension, blogging) time is limited - something I'm trying to work on getting more of! Today, for example, I had a free afternoon, so I decided to visit Few’s Ford on the Eno to see if I could drum up any of the Empids that’ve been reported recently. As soon as I stepped out of my car, I heard an odd clucking reminiscent of a farm chicken, or a turkey with something stuck in its throat. So I pressed forward into the woods to investigate.

I could hear the clucking up ahead, deftly dodging spider webs and poison ivy. Twenty feet in, however, the sound changed direction – it was coming from my right, no, wait, behind me! So I raced back to the parking lot, and the clucking again retreated into the woods. By this time I had my suspicions about this bird, but I had to see it to confirm. Finally, the sound stopped moving, and I could hear it just above my head, at the top of a tree. I ran to the parking lot and there it was.

Honestly, not a bird I thought I'd ever photograph. And certainly not in the Triangle!

A Black-billed Cuckoo! Actually there were two of them, doing a little call and response routine from the woods. But this is the only one that showed for pics. It’s a great bird anywhere in the state, but in the Triangle it’s pretty phenomenal. How phenomenal? Well, I've actually seen them once before, on the 17 Acre Woods greenway in Durham. But most of my birding friends have never seen one! Immediately, I texted all the birders I could think of, but half of them were going out of town and one of them already “had” the bird on his state list by way of Nocturnal Flight Calls (you know who you are). But Nate Swick of The Drinking Bird needed it as a lifer, and raced over to check them out.

Not a great pic, but all the field marks are there - non-contrasting tail pattern, green-gray eyering, and...
what was that last one... oh yeah, the black bill!

The bird flew from its perch well before Nate showed up, but the birds were still vocalizing. Eventually we found it again, foraging between the leaves of a sweet gum (or was it a sycamore? Note to self: learn trees better). We noted how different it was from the more common Yellow-billed Cuckoos: smaller, leaner, with a tiny bill that stuck out like a thorn. Even the way it foraged was different, deftly flitting about, almost like a large warbler.

In exchange for getting him a lifer, Nate agreed to show me where he’d seen a couple Empid flycatchers a couple days earlier. If the flycatchers were there, they weren’t vocalizing at this time of day, so I decided to hike back to my car along the river. I didn’t find all that many birds, but I did flush a pair of drake Wood Ducks and this nice Green Heron.

They may be common, but it's always awesome to sit there and watch a Green Heron do his thing.

I braved overgrown trails and patches of mud, and soon lamented the effort I was giving when there weren’t birds to be found. Just as I was about to give up, I heard chickadees up ahead, and soon found a large flock flying back and forth across the river. Flitting between the common birds were the warblers that make a birder’s day worth it – Tennessees, Redstarts, and Black-throated Green Warblers actively foraged, often obscured by thick foliage. I enjoyed a nice Black-and-White Warbler that made his way up a trunk not ten feet away. But in my enjoyment I forgot to take pictures, so you’ll have to make do with what is probably the biggest River Cooter I’ve ever seen.

To put it into perspective, the turtle in back was a good foot or so long.

Down the trail, I heard an odd spink! That’s how I’d describe it – loud, sharp and metallic. Like a Northern Waterthrush chip-note on steroids. Then I realized I’d heard the sound once before, when I was in Ornithology class. We were on a bird walk around Beaver Lake when our professor pointed out a black bird vocalizing from the top of a tree. It flew off, and I could see bright crimson on its chest and armpits. The memory finished replaying in my head and I ran after the sound, because this Rose-breasted Grosbeak would be a photo-lifer for me.

I'll take what I can get, yeah I'll take what I can get... but you ain't seen nothing yet!
... actually that was my last picture of the day. Sorry!

I found the bird almost instantly, but much to my chagrin it was a female, not the brightly-colored male I was looking for. Still, a photo-lifer is a photo-lifer, and I tried to get my camera to navigate the thick foliage and focus on the grosbeak. I gave up pretty easily and just took a shot of the general area around where the bird was foraging. Luckily enough, one of the shots picked up the bird you see above!

I finished the loop and returned to my car. Even this late in the afternoon, I could still hear the Black-billed Cuckoos calling, albeit deeper in the woods than before. I briefly considered going in after them, but I was sweaty, muddy, and seriously wanted a shower. But it was totally worth it – I had my best day of migration all fall, and I didn’t even have to wake up early. The best kind of birding!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

For Those About to Twitch - WE SALUTE YOU!

You loyal readers may have noticed I’ve been absent lately. There’s no excuse, really, but if I had to create one – work, life, and writer’s block got in the way of my blogging. That isn’t to say that I haven’t done anything lately. Over the past couple weeks, rare birds have been reported across the Triangle, and I’ve gone to chase them. This is the tale of three twitches – one that worked, one that didn’t, and one that was so ridiculous I honestly didn’t have a chance in hell.

We’ll start with the ridiculous. Last Sunday, a Magnificent Frigatebird was reported flying over the local mall. But the local mall is several hundred miles inland, you say? I agree, but the prevailing theory is that the bird was blown in by Hurricane Isaac. The frigatebird made its way down Jordan Lake, and the whole Triangle birding community took up the chase. One other birder saw it on the way down – Ali Iyoob, lucky birder extraordinaire, found it along the lake just after it was reported. The rest of us twitchers missed it by a good hour. No other good birds were to be found, so a couple of us headed towards the local water treatment plant, only to find a single Least Sandpiper to console us for our disappointment.

To be fair, it's a very fresh-plumaged juvenile. I've never seen a Least Sandpiper so rufous!

The next day, being Labor Day, many birders were out and about. And sure enough, a second rare bird was found – this time a Lark Sparrow, out at Lake Crabtree. Through texts and emails, the word spread, and soon enough I found myself at the parking lot of the lake, looking through the scope at a large sparrow chowing down on a huge caterpillar.

Apparently, the edge of a recreational volleyball court is the perfect habitat for hungry Lark Sparrows.

The bird was a lifer for me, and a welcome one – I’d missed seeing one earlier this year by just a couple minutes. But somehow the victory seemed bittersweet. The bird before me was drab, dingy, first-year – not the crisp white bird I’d always dreamed of seeing. Still, as the bird foraged for grass seeds on the edge of an unused volleyball court, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Maybe it wasn’t the lifer I felt I deserved – but it was the lifer I needed.

It's a bird I've wanted to see for a long time... but this plumage? It's 'eh'.

For the most part, the birders stayed far away, viewing the small bird through high-powered spotting scopes. I find this to be a very European style of birding – enjoying the bird from a distance. To me, birding is a personal experience, best had when you’re feet away from a bird and you can view its habits without the need of binoculars. I’ve only experienced this with a couple of species, and I wanted Lark Sparrow to be one of them, so I moved closer.

Out in the Great Plains, Lark Sparrows frequent the volleyball courts that abound in the prairie.

I soon found out why this bird was called a Lark Sparrow. As I got closer, the bird flew a short distance down the shoreline. Immediately, it’s demarcated characteristics disappeared, and all I saw was the drab, streaked back of an apparently boring bird. While this description fits the larks of Europe and Africa very well, it’s not the most telling feature of the Lark Sparrow. Instead, I noticed its flight – bounding, flying high and then shooting down to a much lower level. A sparrow, though one immediately reminiscent of a lark in its breeding display. A Lark Sparrow.

Looks pretty much like every lark I've ever seen... not that I've seen that many larks.

Giving up on the perfect picture, I opened the door of my car, and took one last look at my lifer – hundreds of feet away, still, foraging on the sides of a recreational volleyball court. I’ve no idea why the bird chose this morning to hang out at one of the local birding sites, but it wasn’t the only one. A Willow Flycatcher was reported in the area just a couple days later, and as our current picture of the species is quite frankly terrible, I decided to chase it. Unfortunately, the reportedly vocal individual was gone – I blame the service guy who just finished mowing the trail. Certainly the noise of his John Deere ride-on mower proved too much for the bird to handle, and it vacated its premises. This obliging Eastern Cottontail was a partial consolation prize. But even a rabbit can’t take away this sting of missing a bird.

If you look closely, you can see a fat mosquito turgid with this rabbit's blood. I'll bet I fed many mosquitoes that day.

But, as James says, c’est la birding. Sometimes you get want you want, sometimes you get what you need, and other times you get nothing at all and you’re super disappointed for the next couple weeks. Each time you decide to twitch a rare bird, you take on a gamble, one you’re likely to lose. Every once in a while it works out for you, but for the most part I find twitching a hostile and soul-crushing activity. That’s why I give a shout out to all you birders who seek rare birds on a whim, traveling for miles to reach your potential quarry. I know it’s hard, I’ve been there. I wish somebody were rooting for me too. So, in the slightly modified immortal words of AC/DC, I pledge: For those about to twitch – WE SALUTE YOU!