To refresh your memory, here is the photo from January’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in Florida during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
Apparently I made this too easy. I’ll do my best to rectify that next month! In the meantime…
A quick look at this bird should send you to the back half of the field guide. It’s obviously not a duck, raptor, or woodpecker! Once we’ve catalogued it as a “songbird” our work begins.
Once again, it helps to first take a careful look at the bird. Too often, our subject flies away before we’re ready, so the more features we can quickly notice, the easer will be the ID. In fact, I’ve learned to study the bird as long as possible before turning to the field guide. Often, there won’t be a second chance.
Part of this is knowing which characteristics are the most important. Noting the color of a hummingbird is essential, while with a sandpiper it can be useless. In that case, we need to examine the bill and leg color.
When it comes to Passerine songbirds, color is a very helpful clue. Our bird is tan and yellow, with white spots under the tail. As far as markings go, there is striping on the chest, and a line through the eye, along with a narrow eye-ring.
It’s also important to note the beak. Seed eaters, such as sparrows and finches, have sturdy, triangular beaks. Insect eaters, such as flycatchers, wrens and warblers, have thin, pointed beaks. This bird’s beak is relatively long and sharply pointed.
Size can also help narrow down the possibilities, but it can be hard to tell from a photo, or even in the field. This bird is perched on a twig, so we can infer its relatively small proportions—smaller than a robin, bigger than a Broad-tailed Hummingbird.
We have a small, insect-eating bird with quite a bit of yellow, at least underneath. (The rising or setting sun can also color pale birds a warm yellow, so we need to be aware of the lighting. This was taken late in the afternoon, so there is a warm cast to the photo, but the bird was still yellow.)
Where does that leave us? It could be a vireo, a warbler, or perhaps a small flycatcher. Each of these groups is worth checking out.
Flycatchers come first, so let’s start there. We quickly learn that the striping at the top of the chest eliminates all the smaller flycatchers. Some have shading, but the only one with stripes is the female Vermilion Flycatcher—and the rest of the bird doesn’t match. Vermilion Flycatchers have a shorter, blunter bill, no eye ring, and much less yellow (which is further down near the tail).
How about vireos? Again, while not all vireos have “spectacles” and some are quite yellow, we’re foiled by the stripes. That leaves warblers.
Our bird has a beak like a warbler’s. It has a lot of yellow, as do many warblers. Many have eye-rings. And some warblers even have stripes. We’re on the right track. Now we just need to look for a bird that has all of these traits.
I should point out that the photo was taken in January, before the birds molt into their breeding plumage. That makes it a bit harder to ID, but not impossible.
Flipping through the field guide, we might pause at the Cape May Warbler, or the Cerulean, Blackpoll, or Pine Warblers. But when we reach the Palm Warbler, suddenly “almost but not quite” becomes “there it is!” The dark eye-line, streaked breast, and white under the tail are all clues that this is our bird. So is the range—while most warblers head farther south for the winter, many Palm Warblers hang out along the Gulf Coast, the Outer Banks, and all over Florida. It’s a common bird there in January.
Just to make sure, we finish going through the pages of warblers, but nothing else comes close. So there you go: Palm Warbler.