To refresh your memory, here again is the photo for Bird Quiz #2. Read no further if you still want to have a shot at identifying this bird.
I saw this bird in Santa Cruz, California in February. We were standing on the sea wall north of the pier, scanning the ocean for anything interesting. I took the photo through my scope in hopes of getting a better look, then pulled out the field guide.
[Since I posted this answer, a kind birder who knows much more than I do has pointed out that I’m totally wrong! As I dine on humble pie, please check out his comment below and learn as I did to tell alcids and loons apart.]
Given the habitat and size and shape of the bird, I immediately identified it as an Alcid, and more specifically a Murre. Now the question was, which one?
According to my Sibley field guide, there are two Murres found off the northern California coast, the Common Murre and the occasional Thick-billed Murre. The National Geographic guide limits the range of the Thick-billed Murre to Alaska. Still, you never know.
Given the time of year, I was dealing with a winter adult, although we were getting close to the time it would be molting into its breeding plumage.
Looking at the photos in my field guides, I noted that the major difference between the two possibilities is the pattern on the bird’s head. There are other, finer details, but I didn’t have the best view. For example, I wasn’t sure if the bill was long and straight or “short” with a white gape line.
The Common Murre has a white cheek with a line behind the eye. The Thick-billed Murre has a pure-dark cheek with a white throat. Also, the bill on the Common Murre is held at an angle, similar to that of a loon, while the Thick-billed Murre holds its beak straight out. Finally, the Common Murre has white extending from the throat around the back of the neck, while the Thick-billed Murre does not.
Staring at my photo, I noted that the beak was held at an angle. There is a faint white spot extending toward the back of the neck. However, I could not see a stripe behind the eye.
Given that the Common Murre is much more likely, and adding the beak angle and white neck, and I strongly suspect that is what I saw. At least, the evidence points in that direction. This is a good example of why it’s important to use more than one field mark. If I had only looked at the cheek, I would have named the bird a Thick-billed Murre, and gotten pretty excited!
This bird also points out the importance of looking at all the possibilities, and not just dismissing an individual as the most likely species. I had wondered why only the more experienced birders seem to find the rarities. Perhaps it’s because they look more closely, and don’t make assumptions.
Here is another Common Murre photo, taken in Oregon in September. You can easily see the breeding plumage. The smaller bird was making quite a fuss, demanding food frm its larger parent.