When Chuck Tague sent me this picture of a scarlet tanager I was struck by something I had never noticed before.  The underside of this black and scarlet bird's wings is neither black nor red, it's white!

This got me thinking of other birds whose underwings are an unexpected color.

My favorite are those of the rose-breasted grosbeak.  The rose color from the male's breast is repeated under his wing.  It's a real trick to see this because he just won't hold his wings open.  I discovered the color one day when I was sitting below a male grosbeak and he glided over my head to a nearby branch.  His color took my breath away.

Not colorful, but equally surprising are the black "armpits" of the black-bellied plover.  This bird is named for his breeding plumage but you won't see a black belly on him in the winter when he visits the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to South America.

I remember the first time I tried to identify a non-breeding black-bellied plover.  It was February in Virginia Beach.  Slowly and carefully I examined a flock of three drab birds and tried very hard not to scare them so I could carefully note all their features.  I was a "newbie" to shorebirds and I could not figure them out.  For 15 minutes I watched those birds, had no idea what they were and was careful, careful not to startle them.  Then someone walked by with a dog, the birds flew, and I saw their black armpits.  Black-bellied plovers!  I certainly felt like a fool.

Do you have a bird whose underwing color surprised you?  Leave a comment and tell us about it.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

5 thoughts on “Underwings

  1. I can’t say that I am surprised by the underwing color because with my new binoculars, every bird I have seen has been a surprise! But again, this evening, I went out to watch my feeder and it was full and there were few birds. I saw movement, again, out of the corner of my eye and it was the hawk.

    Now, I’m new to all this. When I saw it yesterday, I was so blown away at what I was seeing that I didn’t notice any detail. Tonight, I tried to pay attention – because I want to try to figure out what type of hawk it is. It circled low and the belly and underwings were a pale cream. It landed on Children’s and just watched everything for about 20 minutes. That’s pretty far, without the binoculars I would have never known he was up there. But it appeared his back, including top of head, was a rich brown.

    He has a feather sorta disloged in one wing – but it doesn’t seem to impact his flying ability. When the pigeon’s are gone – it would seem he’s around. Or she. I have no idea.

    Another bird I saw at my feeder was a surprise for me! It’s head was tinged red with the body a series of cream and brown. It was a beautiful color combination and the bird itself seemed to be getting pushed around a lot by the swallows. It’s not a cardinal, because I have a pair of them and know what they are.

    It would seem I am now hooked. I am going to find a beginners bird book. My yard is laden with berries, flowers, etc..but I don’t seem to attract more than 4 species. Maybe when the blackberry and raspberry come in – I’ll see more.

    I blame the Falcons for this 🙂 Now I ‘need’ books on top of binoculars which I was told when I bought them, would be heavy. I now also ‘need’ weights to build up my arm strength because after watching that hawk for 20 minutes I thought my arms would fall off!! 🙂

  2. I enjoy Traci’s new found wonder with creatures. She makes me feel good about my enjoyment also. I am going to buy a new set of binoculars also. Kate you have such power to inspire us.!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I only have a deck (about 6′ x 4″)but get 2 sets of cardinals, 2 rose breased grosbeaks, a bluejay, doves, med. sized red headed woodpecker, various wrens, finches & a hummingbird & 3 squrrels.I only have 2 hanging petunia plants & a small feeder. Faith C.

  3. Small sparrow-sizes birds with rose-colored reddish heads, down to and including the shoulders, and brown and white streaked bodies are House Finches. They look like a cardinal mated with a sparrow. And the top half is cardinal without the crest and the bottom half is sparrow. Females are lacking the red heads and could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Their color is a little lighter and duller than sparrows and the beaks for both male and female are finch-like – not sparrow like, which means that the beaks are a little larger and take up a little more of the front of the face than on a sparrow. The beak is deep from top to bottom – where it attaches to the face – for strength in cracking seeds. House finches have a near relative – the purple finch- similar in size and shape – but the red is much more extensive. My grandmother had a nest of them in her rosebush when I was a child and I have never forgotten it.

  4. OH!! Thank you!! They are beautiful up close. Since I posted about them, I have seem many more of them. A lot of shiny black birds as well – with black feathers that are almost blue! My blackberries came in – but I haven’t seen any different species. THe black birds have been carrying what appears to be nest making materials in their mouths though…which is interesting.

    I need to get out into the woods and try to see some of what Kate describes.

    Thanks again for telling me what they are!! I rather like them.

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