Sunday, November 17, 2013

May I See Your I.D.?

As an undergraduate student in anthropology, many years ago, I signed up for a primatology class. I love non-human primates and thought the class would be a blast. Then I discovered that not only were we expected to sit for hours studying the gorillas and chimps at the Albuquerque Zoo, but we had to be able to identify more than 100 different non-human primates from pictures. Not only did that sound like too much work for a last semester senior who didn't need the elective, the catch was that some were so similar looking that the only real difference was chemical. So I dropped the course faster than a monkey eating a banana.

Fast forward about 40 years and I'm facing the same issues with birds. Not only are there hundreds of "little brown birds" (LBB), but it can be nearly impossible to identify the specific species. Case in point. I was
recently thrilled to find a little bird at Cape Valero in Rockport. Well, really I think Jim spotted the bird. It looked like "just another" LBB until I got out the binoculars. Then I started to see some yellow. I snapped a couple of photos, trying to get different angles. And then I set out to figure out what bird I'd seen. Was it a new one to add to my life list?

I posted the best of the photos to two of my Facebook birding groups, not only to share the photo and record the sighting, but also hoping someone would say, "What an amazing shot of _________________." Only no one did. They said "amazing shot" and "nice capture" but no one mentioned the type of bird.

So, pull out the field guides. I noted the small size and the short tail. I noted the field marks like yellow-orange throat and supraloral (the area between the eye and the beak). I noted the striped feathers on the flanks and belly. And of course the brownish eye stripe should help. Another shot of the bird showed me a white crown stripe. Of course I also took into consideration the area (South Texas) and the terrain (scrubby trees and grass near water). Based on the size, I started looking at wrens and sparrows. .

Le Conte's Sparrow (USGS photo)
Ah,'s a Le Conte's Sparrow! One of the most easily identifiable birds, according to Audubon. But wait, the beak is wrong. Sparrows have conical beaks while the bird I saw has a longer dagger-like beak. So I'm pretty sure this is not a Le Conte or any other sparrow. Back to the guide books.

Eastern Meadowlark
Warbler's have stripes. But it's not a Pine Warbler (long-tailed). Maybe a Cactus Wren? Nope. They have rounded tails and don't have yellow. Consulting my Sibley Guide to Birds left me seeing so many different birds that I threw up my hands in despair.

Distraught, I posted the photo to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Facebook page and begged for help. What did the experts conclude? Eastern Meadowlark. Immature.

Trying to learn, I looked at images of the Eastern Meadowlark. Field marks include a black patch or V on the breast, which if it appears on my bird is very very faint and streaked (indicating a juvenile bird). The illustrations in Sibley's are more similar to my bird than I see in the photographs on websites like, where the birds look brighter and more yellow. To add further to the debate, given the region of Texas where this bird was seen, it could be a Western Meadlowlark. The only discernible difference is their song. The Eastern Meadowlark trills, "see-you-see-yer" while the Western croons "shee-oo-e-lee shee-ee-le-ee." Got it? Me neither. This isn't much better than chemical differences between monkeys!

I don't know how some birders can identify "on the fly." I'm not giving up but I have to have a photograph and even then it really would be a lot easier if the birds wore identification cards!

1 comment:

  1. They sure can be confusing, those darn birds! Here in Ontario, we have a gazillion CFWs, "confusing fall warblers." They are all little and brown and I am inclined to wait until they return in the spring before attempting to distinguish between them!