Sunday, November 2, 2014

Cryptic Mysteries

The "Western" Flycatchers
Top-Cordilleran Flycatcher Bottom-Pacific-Slope Flycatcher
When I first began this birding quest, I had NO idea what kind of game would unfold!  Over the past several years, I've had so many wonderful hours of frustration and study!  Welcome to Birding 201 as we explore similar looking birds!  Take, for example, the pic above. When I first met these individuals, I had wanted to pull my hair out but since I'm already losing it I didn't think that was such a good idea.  These birds were once lumped together as Western Flycatchers.  Then some birdbrains in 1989 decided to split them. Today, birders still have issues sorting through these two birds.  If the bird doesn't make a sound, we usually mark it as a Western Flycatcher because these two birds look virtually identical! They are known as a CRYPTIC species.  {Cryptic species- one of two or more morphologically indistinguishable biological groups that are incapable of interbreeding} Or in plain English, they are different birds who happen to look the same!  Some birders still hate that the Western Flycatchers were split into Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers. After having observed these birds often in the wild, I can understand why they were split.  It turns out, I was the bird brain:)

The Yellow Kingbirds
Then came the Kingbirds. I've only spotted 4 of these similar looking birds with a couple more to go! Ugh!  During the first days of bird, the gods must have said let's mess with birders a bit.  Over time, field marks played an important role.  An ancient Jedi taught me to look carefully.  Cassin's=white throat and a call that sounds like, "Come here!"; Western=white feathers on the outside of the tail; Tropical=notched tail; Thick-billed=whiter and bigger.  I haven't even gotten to the Couch's Kingbird yet! That should be fun!

Mallards, right? Wrong.
Then I find out that not all ducks are Mallards!  What??!!!  Yep, it's true.  While they may look like Mallards, they're not.  American Black Ducks, Mottled Ducks and the Mallard(including a subspecies known as the  Mexican Mallard) made me scratch my head!  The American Black Duck is on top left, Mallard bottom left and Mottled Duck right side. Even worse is when they hybridize and make matters worse! 

Tyrants in their own way!  L-R; T-B
Great Crested Flycatcher; Brown-crested Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher; Dusky-capped Flycatcher
 Then came the Tyrant Flycatchers! WHY????!!!!  Birders still have problems today distinguishing between the Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers in Arizona. They do look quite different once you've observed them for awhile. The Dusky-capped is the easiest because it makes a sad sound when it calls.  And it's smaller. I still have to find the similar looking Nutting's Flycatcher.  They are part of a genus known as the Myiarchus group. Or as I like to say, the Mariachi group:) Their secret to ID is memorizing their calls. 

Social Flycatcher; Lesser Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher; Great Kiskadee
I discovered the tropics had their own group of Tyrants. But these Tyrants I loved to ID because of their comic calls and acrobatic prowess. Or maybe it's the black mask around the eyes? Anyway, at that point, I realized this life bird hunt around the world wasn't going to be easy.  I remember hating it all.  However, to count a life bird, a birder has to know what they are doing.  I was forced to learn and pay attention to the details. And without realizing it, it made me a better observer!

Ibis Madness! Top-Glossy Ibis in Florida Bottom-White-faced Ibis in Arizona
And that white face every new birder asks about?  Around the eyes.  Can you see it? I thought so:)
 Time of year. Migration patterns.  Tiny field marks.  Calls.  Behaviors.  Habitat differences. Size.  It can determine the difference between a Ross's Goose or Snow Goose.  A Cackling Goose vs. Canada Goose.  Or a Bicknell's Thrush over a Gray-cheeked Thrush.  

Top-Allen's Hummingbird Bottom-Rufous Hummingbird
 Listening to birders argue over such details brings a smile to my face.  "That's an Allen's!"  "Are you sure?  You can't always go by those field marks!" etc etc etc.  But you can bet it will come down to those rectrices! If the bird stays around long enough:) 

American Crow, Fish Crow, Common Raven and Chihuahuan Raven
 But crows and ravens! They require 2 seconds of your time. Stop, listen and go. All of them are smart and intelligent birds! Dare I say, smarter than some humans?  Distance can play tricks on determining size. When I'm out in the field, it's hard to tell because they are flying so fast.  BUT, their calls and behavior will help with their ID right away!

Elegant Trogon top and Slaty-tailed Trogon bottom-they say the bottom bird is greener!  But in the dark rainforest, I had a hard time seeing it.
So I'm in the rain forest and find a trogon, and it looks like the Elegant Trogon from Southern Arizona?? Impossible! Last year, Pat tried to secretly put together a photography book as a holiday gift using my photos.  Quickly, Pat realizes it's not so easy.  "What??!!!!  They look the same!!!!"  Holiday gift exposed.  

The Sage Sparrows
Top-Sagebrush Sparrow
Bottom-Bell's Sparrow
So now to present day. When it came time to find the Bell's Sparrow, I groaned. It's crunch time now.  If I am to add new birds to the national 2014 list, I have to go after these tricky birds.  There I was this weekend in the middle of gunshots going off around me searching for these birds alone.  Hunting season is in full swing and I had to be careful. All I needed to do was find a bird with a darker malar.  It sounds easy, but I assure you it's not.  This is still a new bird for many people here in Arizona and the ID can be very difficult.  The Sage Sparrow was split into two species....the Bell's Sparrow and the Sagebrush Sparrow only last year. But we knew it was only a matter of time before this split would happen. The Sagebrush is common here but the Bell's will mingle within the Sagebrush populations during the winter months.  We had gone to a conference on these birds over a month ago which had studied the "Sage" sparrows in several areas around Arizona during the 2013-14 year.  I hit the jackpot on my trip to Robbins Butte Wildlife Area.  

Bell's Sparrows
The Bell's prefers high density vegetation and can be trickier to photograph.  Some good field marks for the Bell's here(Mojave subspecies) are little to no streaking on the back and a darker malar than the head.  I sat for hours studying my pictures on several of these birds and then emailed Mr. Tommy D for help. He has put in hours and hours of work out in the field with both the Bell's and Sagebrush sparrows. I am thankful for my birder friends.  Sometimes you have to call on help and have a second opinion on some things. So thank you Tommy!  New year bird and life bird added!  Now when I go out into the field again, I'll have a stronger understanding about this newly split bird. I still have a lot to learn!

Top-Clay-colored Sparrow
Bottom-Brewer's Sparrow
Nearly two years ago from this date, I had a similar challenge with my friend Kathie Brown. We had found "different" acting sparrows hanging out with the Brewer's Sparrows. They were brighter than their duller counterparts. This weekend, I went in search of the not-so-common Clay-colored Sparrow and found it!  Two years ago I wouldn't have been able to call this bird out in the field alone, but this weekend, I did. Thanks to our study and observations from the past, I was able to look for key field marks.  Experience and study make the ID on difficult birds a cinch! And it was a thrill. Plus it was the second new bird for the year in one weekend! Truth be told, it's these kinds of cryptic species that make birding exciting.  While similar looking sandpipers, sparrows, hawks, etc can be frustrating, they also offer us insight into just how really complex our world is.  In the beginning, I didn't understand it.  Today I appreciate that subtlety and challenge.  Here's another Tommy D video on Birding Stereotypes....about ID! Enjoy!

For more from around the world, check out Wild Bird Wednesday!


  1. Well, now I am proud of myself for IDing that Cassin's correctly! Your cryptic birds really bring it all to the forefront, this near-impossible task of a proper ID at times. Of course I am not a real birder, just an occasional amateur, but most bird types give me fits! Incidentally, I so hoped we'd see an Elegant Trogon when we were at Madera canyon but didn't. I'm still convinced we saw a Blue Throated Hummer on two occasions, but I could never get a picture, he flew away so fast. It was probably the Magnificent both times, because I know we saw those. I would be so nervous trying to make a definitive ID to turn in to a bird documentation project, especially if it was a bird that was rarely seen in the area I saw it. I wouldn't trust myself. :-) Great post, as always, Chris!

  2. I sympathize and understand as I'm looking at photos of larks and pipits from our Kenya at the moment. Photos do help, as does managing to identify one after a struggle as it makes you better at working out differences - but it's a struggle sometimes! I don't think we have quite as difficult challenges with Australian birds.

  3. A well written blog. yes ID can be VERY challenging as recently I found it. I was in Malawi never having been birding in Africa before so did not know any of their birds. Without the bird book I would have been lost and also a blogger in Tangania that has been extremly helful

  4. Hi Chris, You are definitely taking the ADVANCED Birding Class now.. Trying to distinguish between two or more similar birds has to be frustrating and tiring... I admire you for continuing to do it... Not sure I would do it --but certainly enjoy seeing blogs from people like you who love it and provide photos for us... Thanks!!!


  5. Great post, Chris. Most of these birds would have me scratching me head.. Your photos are awesome..

  6. This was a fun post to read, Chris! Thanks for the shout out too! There are many complex birding id's that are so difficult. I have along ways to go in learning them all, but like you said, that's what makes birding the exciting hobby and passion that it is. There's always something to learn!

  7. Thank you Tommy for all that you do!

  8. Great post Chris and amazing photos :) I do admire your dedication to solving id problems - we have a lot of cryptic species over here too!!

  9. i would be totally tearing my hair out - or drinking heavily - or both... trying to i.d. these. :)

  10. Wonderful shots of birds. Very cute.

  11. Great post, Chris! I had to laugh at Theresa's comment and I have to agree with her.

  12. I love this post. How often have we thought... Oh that bird is a.... crap... and it can get tough. I found a flycatcher (trail's) and i heard an alder. and I thought, this is an alder than that bird called out as a willow flycatcher. Happy to get both, happy that they were vocal to distinguish for me...
    Great pictures and sentiment

  13. Your post is both fun and serious Chris and you make some very valid observations about IDing potentially confusing species. I always stress to novices that birding is not something they can learn in a week or two. Also and as you point out, it's the "jizz2 and often the calls and song that can clinch an ID.

    By the way you can come out banding anytime you're in England, just give me a shout.

  14. Wonderful blog, and all those birds, superb.

  15. That would be so awesome Phil! Thank you! When England is on my radar I look forward to the fun!

  16. Oh, good.... you're all studied up.... come over to my blog and tell me about my little hawk.... sorry you can't see it's tail... probably the bit that will totally identify him for me..... sigh...... maybe next time he sails in trying for a sparrow lunch I'll get a better pic of him...

  17. Superb post.

    I travel the world on birding holidays and love the post part of my trip when I sit down and try..... yes try! to do all my IDing and solving all the sub species issues....

    Its an ever evolving subject and a fascinating one too.

  18. Your excellent post has served to remind me how terribly inadequate my own powers of observation are, Chris. Coming to birding very late in life, when my hearing is not good, and the few remaining brain cells are struggling amongst themselves to sort out which does what - and then forgetting what was agreed, I suspect many of the LBJs (little brown jobs), for example, will always be just LBJs!

    It's good that there are often people around who can help with I/Ds and smile kindly at the questions that some buffoon like me will ask!

  19. Although you have birds on the brain you are definitely NOT a birdbrain. Has to be a challenge to make it worth while.

  20. Chris, you have gotten so good at all of this! I am so proud of you! You are way better than me at identifying these cryptic species! What fun we had finding that clay-colored sparrow at Whitewater Draw. while we did not know what it was, we did know enough to realize it was different from the other sparrows and, best of all, to TAKE ITS PICTURE!!!!

    You have articulated all of this very well! Now I am counting on you to help me find a Bell's when I come to visit!

  21. Good grief! Thank goodness I just photograph the many beautiful birds I encounter. It seems almost impossible to differ all the close species. All I know is that I will be seeing trogons and kiskadees soon. And I can't wait. The different Mallards? Who knew!


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