Today’s blog is an opportunity to improve your bird identification skills and it’s a challenge.
What bird is this?
To level the playing field, I’ve picked a bird I’ve never seen.
Let’s go through the normal identification clues in order of importance. These are the questions I ask myself when birding. Many of them will help here. (Yes, the order of the clues really matters.)
- Where on earth is this bird? Out-of-place birds are rare. Narrow the possibilities by knowing which birds occur where you’re birding.
- What habitat is the bird in? Even on migration birds pick their preferred habitat if at all available. Is the bird at the ocean? a lake? river? streamside? dense woods? open woods? pines? oaks? a field? a swamp? a mudflat?
- What sound does it make? If you can identify birds by song, this is useful in Spring through June. (If you can identify call notes you’re such an expert that you know what bird this is.)
- What size is it? The size of a goose? Larger? The size of a crow? robin? sparrow? Smaller than a sparrow?
- What shape is it? This is really important! Check its beak: long? short? thick? thin? big and fat? thin and short? Check its legs: long? short? almost non-existent? Check its neck: long? short? very short? Check its tail: long? short? fancy? Does it have ear tufts? Does it have a crest?
- What is it doing? How does it perch? (Does it perch at all?) How does it fly? (short bursts, darting, hovering, soaring) What does it eat? Food is a major clue.
- What color is it? Color is actually the last clue though our brains lock onto it first. You can actually identify a bird in the field without knowing its color. How many of you can identify a crow by hearing it caw? …and you don’t even need to see it!
Here are the clues applied to the bird in this picture. In some cases I’ll tell you more than you could know from a random photo.
- Where on earth is this bird? It was photographed in Brazil.
- What habitat is the bird in? It’s perched on a branch without lots of leaves. Wild guess: This bird is in open woods.
- What sound does it make? We can’t tell in a photo.
- What size is it? We can barely tell in a photo so I’ll have to say: This bird is the size of a starling.
- What shape is it? Great question!
- Look at that beak: long and thick and significantly large compared to its body length.
- Notice the whiskers. Most birds with whiskers catch insects in flight — nighthawks and flycatchers, for instance. If this bird resembles another whiskered bird, it could be a relative?
- Check its legs: short.
- Check its neck: short.
- Check its tail: long! about 1/3 of the bird’s length
- What is it doing?
- How does it perch? It typically perches with its beak tilted up. Its stance is like a hummingbird except that its beak and body are too large.
- How does it fly? We can’t tell in this photo.
- What does it eat? Whiskers indicate that it probably eats flying insects.
- What color is it? Rufous and iridescent green.
This bird has a beak like a woodpecker (a distant relative) but its whiskers indicate it eats flying insects. Those who have seen this bird in the wild have called it “a glittering hummingbird the size of a starling.”
Ready for the answer? See the link in the photo credit.
(photo by Dario Sanches via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original. Click here for the answer to this quiz.)
Black-crowned night-herons are usually active at night but they’re so busy during the breeding season you might find one awake when the light is good. Then you can see his colors.
Isn’t his red eye awesome!
Other birds have red eyes too. The red-eyed vireo is obvious — it’s in his name — but the rest require some research.
How many red-eyed birds can you name?
Leave a comment with your answer.
p.s. Here’s a question for the experts (I don’t know the answer): Why do they have red eyes?
(photo by Brian Herman)
This week in Schenley Park, the hillsides are dotted with the white plumes of False Solomon’s Seal.
False Solomon’s Seal is a perennial plant in the Lily family that grows in moist woods and thickets. It goes by many names including Solomon’s plume, False Spikenard, Treacleberry, Maianthemum racemosum and Smilacina racemosa.
The plant sprouts every year from creeping rhizomes so you usually find its long slightly zigzag stems in sizable clumps. The leaves’ upper surface is parallel to the stem so the plants lean to one side. Interestingly, an entire clump tends to lean the same direction, all of them showing their leaves to the sun and their white flowers to pollinating bees and beetles. It looks like the whole clump is doing “The Wave.”
False Solomon’s Seal produces red berries in the fall that are eaten by birds and rodents. People sometimes use the plant as a laxative and deer browse it occasionally but it’s not one of their favorites. Perhaps the deer know about its laxative effects.
So this is False Solomon’s Seal, but what plant is “true”… and why? Leave a comment with your answer.
(photo from Wikipedia. Click on the photo to see the original)
Here’s a nest that was under construction in Marcy’s cherry tree more than a week ago. By now it has eggs.
Can you tell whose nest this is? Here are some hints:
- The female selects the site and builds the nest.
- She uses grasses, weed stalks, and strips of cloth or string.
- The materials are held together with wet, soft mud that she carries to the nest to cement it. Mud is essential.
- Working from the inside of the cup, the female molds the nest to the contours of her body.
- As a finishing touch, she lines the inside with soft grasses.
- She does not maintain the nest so it deteriorates with use and might even blow out of the tree.
- It takes 5 to 7 days for her to construct the first nest of the season, a little less time for subsequent nests.
- The female builds a new nest — or builds on top of the old nest — for subsequent broods.
Whose nest is this? Leave a comment with your answer.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
For April Fools’ Day I couldn’t resist a little quiz about the amazing talents of pigeons.
Are any of these statements true?
- During World War II electronic missile guidance systems were not yet reliable so the NDRC funded a project to use trained pigeons to guide missiles.
- Pigeons can hear distant thunderstorms and far-away volcanoes that we cannot hear.
- Pigeon nests are cemented with pigeon poop.
- Google uses “pigeon clusters” to enhance its search technology.
- Some pigeons can fly 600 miles a day.
- Pigeons can rescue people capsized at sea.
Want to hazard a guess? Leave a comment with your answer.
(photo by Chuck Tague)
And now for something completely different (not about peregrines).
I found this understory tree “blooming” in many places along the North Shore bike trail at Moraine State Park on Sunday. It drew my attention because of its long, yellow catkins.
Do you know what it is? Here are some hints:
- The plant grows in clumps like a shrub.
- The clumps are on average about 10 feet tall.
- Its long yellow catkins indicate it’s in the birch family.
- Many of the catkins sprout alone instead of in bunches.
- The catkins are as long as — or longer — than my fingers.
- The leaf buds are alternate on the branches.
- The bark is smooth and speckled.
Leave a comment with your answer.
(photo by Kate St. John)
I can usually identify this plant in a heartbeat, but I was stumped when I saw this photograph. Maybe you will be too, so I’ve made it a quiz.
Here are some clues:
- The plant is a perennial native of Asia.
- It’s invasive in North America wherever it’s found.
- The stems are hollow and stand over 10 feet tall, persisting through the winter.
- The plant spreads by wind-borne seeds and rhizomes.
- The rhizomes are particularly difficult to eradicate and result in dense stands of this plant.
- It was originally brought here as an ornamental because it’s flowers are arranged in pretty cream-colored sprays above the stems. (This is the flower stalk in winter.)
- The young stems are edible and taste like rhubarb but Americans don’t like it well enough it to reduce its population by harvesting.
Do you know what it is? Leave a comment with your answer.
(photo by Dianne Machesney)
If you recognize this flower in August it also looks familiar at this time of year.
Tall or Canada Goldenrod is a native perennial that maintains its shape, even in winter. It still stands two to six feet tall, it still carries alternate leaves on a rough stem and it still holds up a plume-like spire where the flowers used to be. The spire was a dense cluster of golden flowers in August. Now it’s a dense cluster of seeds.
You’ll find goldenrod in open areas, often in large patches because the rhizomes (roots) spread underground.
Goldenrod species are notoriously difficult to identify. I listed two names for this plant because I’m not sure which one it is. It might be Tall Goldenrod, maybe Canada Goldenrod, maybe something else. It doesn’t matter. My excuse is that the plant isn’t in good condition.
And here’s a Quiz: Can you identify the tall plant on the left edge of this photo? I discussed it in an earlier Winter Weeds blog. Remember?
p.s. Today is Groundhog Day. Check here for news from Punxsutawney Phil. Rumor has it he did not see his shadow so Spring is near.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Whose curly-headed baby bird is this?
Here are some hints:
- He is on an island in the Pacific Ocean.
- His species is critically endangered because 99.9% of them nest this island only.
- His parents built no nest. His mother laid his egg on bare ground.
- It took two months for this baby to hatch, then six more months before he can fly.
- His parents feed him regurgitated oil derived from fish, squid and crustaceans.
- Sometimes he must wait a long time between feedings because his parents travel 6 to 60 miles to find food.
- He is one of 22 species in this family of birds (species count from BirdLife International).
- A famous poem tells us it’s very bad luck to kill this type of bird.
Do you know who he is? Leave a comment with your answer.
UPDATE at 9:45am: Most of you guessed the family of birds correctly. Can any of you guess the exact species? Hint: This is a tropical island.
(photo by Deborah Acklin)
Quick! Name an animal — not a bird — that can fly like this. Here are some clues.
- This animal doesn’t flap, but it does fly.
- It has better lift and less drag than many insects.
- It’s lift ability is the same as for hawks and wood ducks.
- The longest time it’s been recorded aloft is 45 seconds.
- It can travel as much as 1,300 feet in one flight. That’s more than 4 football fields!
- And, with the help of the wind, it can speed along at 43 miles per hour.
Leave a comment with your answer.
(If you’re really stumped, the answer is at this link.)
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)