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In all, seven brave souls took a shot at identifying the five species of juvenile passerines represented by the six images in this photo quiz. Six posted public comments to this journal post and another sent me a private response.
The bird in the first two photos was identified correctly as a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow by all respondents. One person did not understand that images #1 and #2 were of the same species, thus identified the second photo as a Chipping Sparrow. The second photo is a bit ambiguous due to shadows across the face, which make it look like it might have a dark line through the lores. Note the pattern on the lores in photo #1, there is no dark line, which would be evident on a juvenile Chipping Sparrow, but is not seen on a juvenile "Puget Sound" White-crowned Sparrow (subspecies pugetensis); this is the only subspecies that breeds in the lowlands of western Oregon.
Aside from one respondent, everyone deduced that the second bird (photo #3) is a juvenile Lazuli Bunting. The person who had "no idea" is a comparative new birder who lives on the central Oregon coast, where Lazuli Bunting is a rare migrant and does not breed. I half expected someone to call this bird a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird, to which it bears some resemblance. However, if you look closely at the tail you can see that there is pale blue in the base of the rectrices. Even if you missed the blue in the tail, the pattern of streaking below eliminates juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. This bird is sparsely streaked below, with narrow, crisp streaks that are widely spaced and essentially limited to the breast. There is some very weak, diffuse streaking on the lower breast and flanks. Juvenile cowbirds are more densely streaked, with obvious streaking extending all the way down the breast and belly. Additionally, this bird has unstreaked white under tail coverts, whereas a juvenile cowbird with have tan under tail coverts with darker brown streaking.
The bird in photo #4 provided the first real stumbling block. One respondent offered up Brewer's Blackbird, while a second thought it was a Brown-headed Cowbird. The other five respondents, all of whom live with 100 miles of where this bird was photographed, readily recognized that it was a juvenile Spotted Towhee. I have to admit, when I first saw this bird I was quite taken by how dark it was. I see juvenile Spotted Towhees annually, as they are very common breeders in w. Oregon. I've never seen one that was this dark, but I usually see juvenile towhees a little later in the season when they are moving about more independently. This bird is much too dark to be a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. On the surface, identifying this bird as a juvenile Brewer's Blackbird or perhaps a young Red-winged Blackbird seems reasonable, but if you take a close look at tip of the tail, this becomes a slam-dunk ID. The outermost right hand retrix has a big white spot on the inner web.
Most of respondents did not struggle with next photo (#5), correctly identifying the bird as a juvenile Common Yellowthroat. One respondent thought it was a Yellow Warbler, which is certainly a reasonable guess. At this age, Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers are remarkable similar in appearance. Generally, Yellow Warblers have a more conspicuous complete white eyering, which I don't notice on this bird. For me the combination of posture and tail length are the most helpful clues. Yellow Warblers are comparatively short-tailed with long under tail coverts and they almost always hold their tails horizontal in line with the body. Conversely, Common Yellowthroats have fairly long tails, shorter under tail coverts and they typically have their tails cocked up slightly, creating a wren-like appearance. I also think the color of the tail on this bird is helpful. It seems to be darker green than any tail I've seen on a Yellow Warbler. Finally, it's hard to see in this photo, but Common Yellowthroats have darker auriculars, which usually contrast noticeably with the much paler throat, while Yellow Warblers have a very unpatterned face with paler auriculars that don't contrast much with the color as the throat.
I had the final bird, photo #6, pegged as a complete stumper. I was genuinely surprised that anyone got this one right and in fact half of the respondents somehow figured out (devined?) that it was a partially-grown juvenile Willow Flycatcher. Rick Wright deserves special recognition for being the only out-of-towner to nail this bird. The other two correct responses came from Adrian Hinkle and Tom McNamara (who sent me his guesses privately). They are both Portland area birders who've birded the site where this photo was taken many times. They would know that Willow Flycatchers are absolutely thick in the Armenian blackberry mounds that cover much of the unforested landscape at Sandy River Delta Park. They either figured this one out by process of elimination, or perhaps they have seen Willow Flycatchers of this age at the site. Had I not observed this bird being attended to by an adult Willow Flycatcher, I may have concluded that it was a young Warbling Vireo. To my eye it looks gray above rather than olive or brown and there is no suggestion of the wingbars that I would expect to see even on a recently-fledged Empidonax flycatcher. The bill does look pretty broad across the base, which perhaps points to the bird being a flycatcher.
I want to thank the handful of folks who responded to this quiz and point out that all of those who took a stab at these birds are known to me. All but one are very experienced and widely-traveled birders, which is demonstrated by the abundance of correct answers in their responses. There is no shame in misidentifying these birds. Since juvenile passerines only wear their first set of feathers and present their juvenile aspect for month or two before the onset of their first prebasic or preformative (Pyle) molt, illustrations of these plumages can't be found in most field guides. They can only be learned via first hand experience. The species represented in this quiz all tend to inhabit low dense brush and their dependent youngsters are inclined to remain buried even deeper in the tangles as they await being fed by adults. To see these species in their juvenile aspect takes persistence and spending lots of time watching common birds during the breeding season.
Becoming a better birder involves challenging yourself to ID birds that you find confounding. I am of the opinion that you learn far more from your mistakes than you do by getting identifications right without a struggle or having them spoon-fed to you by an expert. When you do misidentify a bird (and we all do), there is much enlightenment to be gained by retracing the steps through your thought process and analyzing where a preconceived notion or faulty perception led you down the wrong path. Only two of the respondents got all five birds right, and they both enjoy a decided advantage in terms of local knowledge.
If you are out birding this month in the northern U.S. states or Canada you are virtually certain to encounter some puzzling birds. Try as you might, you'll likely fail to find anything that looks quite like them in your field guide. The selection of images below were all taken 21-23 July 2012. Each of these newly-fledged juveniles represents a species that regularly breeds in the Pacific Northwest, and most are actually quite common across much of the Region. When removed from the context of a readily identifiable adult, they may confound you. The date and location for each photo is provided. We invite you to try your hand at figuring out what these birds are and challenge your birding friends to do the same. If you are bold enough to make your guesses public, please do so in the form of a comment to this blog piece (comments box is at the bottom of the page). We'll give this about a week before posting the identities of these birds.
Building the BirdFellow community and our online Social Field Guide has involved a series of what we like to call "serendipitous collaborations." We don't know where new resources and support will come from next, but invariably they arrive on our doorstep. In a recent exchange of messages on OBOL (Oregon Birders On Line) I learned of the existence of a significant egg collection that had been amassed by the late father of one of the OBOL community members. He posted a link to a photo gallery that showed sets of eggs along with the meticulous hand-written data cards that documented each clutch of eggs. My first instinct was, "these photos would be a fantastic addition to our Social Field Guide," but then it occurred to me, many in this community might be offended by the activity that yielded this collection.
Oology– the study/hobby of egg collecting–was once a popular and socially acceptable manifestation of one's interest in birds. It flourished in Great Britain and North America from the 1800's well into the 20th century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oology). The heyday of this activity predates quality optics, small hand-held cameras, and readily-available field guides. Our birding predecessors, professional and amateur alike, were collectors of birds and their eggs. If you wanted your observations to be recorded and used to expand that era's understanding of bird distribution and life history, you best return from the field with physical evidence. Given the culture of that era, early birders and ornithologists were understandably just as passionate about expanding their collections as present-day birders are about adding new species to their life list.
By the mid-20th century the notion of conserving birds and protecting them from outright slaughter, and even collection, had entered the consciousness of the mainstream. Today, "egging" is a rare and criminal pursuit, frowned upon by the general populace and abhorred by the birding community. Although oology had gone out of fashion by 1960 (it was outlawed in the U.K in 1954), today hundreds of thousands of egg sets continue to reside in British and North American natural history museums (http://www.sbcounty.gov/museum/media/2005/06-04-05a.htm).
One such collection is that of Manassa Schrock. It is currently housed at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Schrock spent much of his life in western Oregon's Willamette Valley, hence his collection includes egg sets of 77 species common to his home area and the surrounding region. All but eight of the sets were collected by Schrock between 1950 and his death in 1960; the others were presumably received in exchanges with other collectors. Schrock maintained the proper federal and state permits, and his egg collecting was conducted under the guidance of Alex Walker (Floyd Schrock, pers. comm.). Walker was a respected amateur ornithologist and long-time curator of the Tillamook County (Oregon) Pioneer Museum (http://www.oregonmuseums.org/sectionindex.asp?sectionid=74).
Confident in both the veracity and legitimacy of Manassa Shrock's collection, I asked his son Floyd Schrock, a birder in his own right, if BirdFellow might add the photos of his father's collection to our online resources. He graciously welcomed the opportunity to see his father's collection used in this manner. We are very pleased to be able to make this resource available to the BirdFellow community and give modern-day birders a chance to compare their observations with collections from the past. In the coming weeks Floyd Schrock's photos of his father's collection will be added to the BirdFellow photo galleries for those species.
If you spend a day in the field at this time of year, it's a virtual certainty that you will draw the ire of adult birds that are protecting newly-fledged offspring. Highly-dependent young of many species are fresh out of the nest. Although there may be no youngsters in sight, the incessant sharp chips, physical distraction displays, and the generally agitated movements of their parents inform us of what lies hidden away in the vegetation.
During a day birding on the mid-level slopes of Oregon's Cascade Range on 7 July 2012, Shawneen Finnegan and I came upon many family groups and were scolded by a host of species. These included Spotted Sandpiper, White-headed Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Common Yellowthroat, MacGillivray's Warbler, Yellow Warbler, and surely others that I'm forgetting.
Our most interesting encounter occurred along the shores of Detroit Lake in eastern Marion County. We pulled over near the lake edge to look over some waterbirds and almost immediately an adult male Yellow Warbler unleashed a tongue-lashing of sharp chip notes from the strip of low vegetation between the road and the lake edge. An adult female was also in the tangle of vegetation, but her actions lacked the agitation shown by the male.
Given the male's behavior, we assumed that it had nearby young, and after several moments Shawneen spotted a somewhat teed-up fledgling. It was all bill and gape, tail-less, and possessed stubby little wings barely capable of flight. It remained essentially motionless as the adult male interspersed feeding visits to the youngster with scolding chips directed at us. Shawneen saw the adult male feed this juvenile several times, but neither of us saw the female give it food. We observed both adults making brief flights to a nearby stand of cottonwoods, with the female making most of those trips, so we presumed that they were feeding other nestlings that had yet to fledge.
In this instance, I was most intrigued by the behavior of the female, as she seemed to take far less interest in–or, was at least less agitated by–our presence than the male. Although she remained in the immediate vicinity of the juvenile most of the time, she continued feeding and did not go to feed it. On a couple of occasions she disappeared deep into the brush for more than a minute at a time.
At one point she came very near our parked truck, so I walked behind the truck and used it as a blind. As I watched from about 12 feet away she fluttered her wings in a manner somewhat similar to the way many juvenile passerines flutter their wings when begging for food. I wondered if this might be some sort of feigned injury distraction display, which are known in this species (pers. comm. George Lozano Ph.d), but she continued to gather food and again burrowed deep into the dense vegetation.
While it's always informative and exciting to watch this type of behavior and to see newly-hatched birds, it is best to make such observations as brief as possible and then move on. Gathering enough food to keep hungry offspring fed is very demanding on the adults. While outside distractions are inevitable, prolonged interruptions of their normal routine can have negative impacts. We watched these birds for just a few minutes. We were unable to determine if there were other hatchlings hidden in the brush, as we heard no begging calls and did not see any juveniles other than the one in the photo above. The fledgling that we saw may well have been the only one that had left the nest.