To refresh your memory, here is the photo from December’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in Texas during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
Since we’re all so busy at this time of year, I picked a relatively easy bird to ID. You’re welcome.
First, note the small size, pointy little beak, and those beady black eyes. The overall yellow coloring is another good hint.
There are a number of small yellowish birds found in parts of Texas in January. Kinglets have a distinctive white wing bar, made even more visible by the black right next to it. Vireos often wear “spectacles” but not always. Hmmm.
Flycatchers are another possibility. Orioles and tanagers are both larger. The females in particular are bright yellow, but orioles’ longer, curved bill tells you they’re in the blackbird family. Tanagers also have a much stronger, thicker bill than our mystery bird.
Warblers are small, have sharp but delicate beaks, and are often yellow. Another “hmmm.” And finally, finches have triangular seed-eating beaks.
We’ve narrowed it down to vireos and warblers. Now what? Compared to warblers, vireos are stockier, with a thicker bill and legs. Warblers tend to look more delicate.
You can’t see this bird’s behavior, which is too bad, since behavior can be very helpful. Vireos are active little bug-catchers, but warblers are more in the ADHD category. They never sit still. (This makes them really frustrating to photograph!)
Looking at some pictures in my field guide, I can see that this bird’s thin, almost needle-like beak is more similar to a warbler’s than a vireo’s.
My go-to field guide is the one by Sibley. I particularly appreciate that you can compare all birds of a family on one or two facing pages. In the new edition, the warbler pages start of page 466-467. Turning there, it’s immediately clear that there are a lot of yellow warblers! It’s time to hunker down and get specific. (We should note that these illustrations are of first winter females, which tend to have fewer distinguishing features than the males.)
Is our bird completely yellow? Not really—it’s more of an olive-drab on its back. How about the eye? It has a broken yellow ring around it and a projecting subtle black stripe, but no “eyebrow.” Other markings? Some faint striping on the breast, and brighter yellow under the tail. There are no wing bars. Legs are more a drab olive-gray than black. That’s not much to go on, but it’s a start.
Which warblers fit that description? Using the comparison chart as a start, and then turning pages to include the males—there’s really only one. Sibley describes it:
A small, sharp-billed, drab-colored warbler. Note broken eyering, blurry streaks on breast, and yellow undertail coverts.
Yes, this is an Orange-crowned Warbler. Here’s one more photo showing the orange crown (which usually isn’t visible).