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Nature in it's glory

Nature in it's glory

Apr 7, 2011

The challenge, Bird ID and triumph

White-winged Crossbill pair
Many birds species are so similar in appearance that identification becomes rather challenging.   However, for someone just starting out with birdwatching, it is often somewhat easier to distinguish between the males of the species, rather than the females. In focusing on the males, the key for triumph over identification challenges is to concentrate on the markings on the bird you are observing, as each species has distinct markings, even if it is just in the form of two plain colors. 

 Many  birds have distinguishing marks in the form of patches or bands, on the tail or rump, either above or below.   When it comes to bands on the tail, aside from being a different color, they may be wide or narrow, or consist of a specific number.  Some hawks, for instance, have stripes of darker and lighter color banding their tails, although a Goshawk will have fewer bands than a  Cooper's  hawk.  Other species of birds do as well, such as the waxwings below.  Patches of color on the rump might  be a little harder to see unless the bird is in flight or at rest.   The Bohemian waxwing below has color on the bottom of it's rump, while the Yellow-rumped Warbler, also below, has a patch of yellow above, just at the top of the tail.

Cedar Waxwing
Bohemian  Waxwing
Other markings to look for will be on the wings.  The Cedar Waxwing has small red spots on it's wings and the Bohemian has the same, however the Bohemian has white and yellow markings on the wing as well, and the White-winged crossbill, seen at the top of the page, has white stripes along the edge of it's wings.

American Redstart
Also, watch for a cap, or stripes on the top, back, or the side of the head, and a mustache, patch, streaks, or spots on the cheek.  These might consist of a totally different color, or they might just be a shade or two darker than the bird's over all coloring.  In either case, what ever these markings consist of, they will be quite distinguishable.  Many woodpeckers have a red patch on the back of their head, for example, and the chickadee has a black cap and a white cheek patch.   The White-winged Crossbill, on the other hand, has a crescent shaped black mark running along it's cheek from it's neck almost all the way to the top of the head.

Yellow- Rumped Warbler Breeding

Yellow- Rumped Warbler non-breeding
As far as the body of a bird is concerned, markings can be anywhere on the belly, chest or side.  Here you can look for streaks, spots, one color merging into another, or even patches of different colors.  The American Redstart has patches of red, orange, black and white all merging into a beautiful whole along the underside of it's body, from the throat to the legs.  In contrast the yellow rumped warbler has darker streaks covering a light belly, all merged with light yellow along the sides.

Although what is really of interest about the Yellow rumped Warbler, that you should be aware of, is that during mating season it changes it's color.  It then to looks much like the American Restart, except that it's coloring is a perfectly gorgeous suit of yellow, white and black, as you can see above.  This bird is not the only bird species to change it's plumage during the breeding season.  This fact can make bird identification a bit more challenging for sure.  But don't let this discourage you, as it helps to be aware of the possibility when you are out on bird watch, and will definitely help with any research you might be inclined to do.