To refresh your memory, here are the photos from March’s Bird Quiz. The top photo was taken in Colorado during the month of February. The bottom photo was taken in Florida during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify these birds.
I selected two photos this time because I don’t want the beginning birders to get too frustrated, but I want to challenge those with more experience. With that in mind,
1. The top photo is an easy one.
2. The bottom photo is not.
Let’s start at the top. We have a small songbird with triangular beak, striking white wing bar, and a yellow chin. The beak indicates it’s a seed eater, so it’s likely this species comes to feeders.
This is where it pays to have a “real” field guide, with multiple illustrations for each species showing different times of year, both sexes, juveniles, etc. Why? This is a common bird, but remember I took the picture in February. That’s right, it’s in its winter plumage.
Since this is a small songbird, let’s start at the end of the book and work forward. Remember to look at illustrations of winter birds.
We don’t have to get very far. In fact, the new Sibley’s puts this bird at the far back of the book, just before all the escaped imports. Black, white, gray, with yellow under the beak—yes, it’s an American Goldfinch.
Here’s what a male will look like in a few more months (right).
One caveat: the field guide includes a bright white/yellow patch at the top of the wing that is not seen in my photo. If you look at winter goldfinches online, you’ll see that this patch is not always visible. It’s still an American Goldfinch.
Now for the second bird. It’s obviously some sort of shorebird, but which one?
Many waders share the same coloring (those that don’t are easily identified), so we need to look at other characteristics. The most helpful are the size of the bird, the length and color of the legs, and the size and shape of the beak. Once we get those figured out, any remaining questions can be answered with subtle differences in the markings. Location can be helpful, but strays happen.
So, our bird is relatively small (but not a peep), has medium long black legs, and a very thick, straight, black beak that isn’t extra-long. Additionally, it’s at the beach (see the blurry waves and sand in the background), so it’s unlikely to be an upland species. Where does that leave us?
This is yet another reason I appreciate the Sibley guides. Each section has a summary spread at the beginning that shows every species in that category. It’s easy to skim through and compare options. Looking at the shorebirds, we can eliminate godwits, phalaropes, dowitchers, stilts, avocets, curlews, yellowlegs, snipes and American Woodcock. That helps tremendously, but we still have to sift through plovers (two genera) and sandpipers of the genus Calidris.
How do you tell a plover from a sandpiper? While you can look at each individual field mark, I find it easier to get a general sense of the bird. Plovers tend to be wide and flattened, with short, thick bills. Some of the smaller ones remind me of beach cobbles with short skinny legs. Sandpipers are usually rounder, and their bills tend to be longer and thinner. Which do we have here? To me, it “feels” like a plover, so I’ll start looking there.
This bird is taller than my “cobblestone” plovers, and it doesn’t have any distinctive markings. Additionally, the beak is very sturdy. As in the first picture, above, the bird was photographed in winter, January in this case. It’s not breeding (breeding birds are much easier to ID). It’s not migrating.
There are a few species that look possible, but closer scrutiny eliminates them. Either our bird’s bill is too short, or it’s too thick, or the legs are the wrong color, or the bird isn’t found in Florida in January. Really, the only bird that fits the all the characteristics is the Black-bellied Plover. And so it is.
To confirm this ID, note the black wingtip peeking out? That’s characteristic of Black-bellied Plovers. Sibley doesn’t show it in his illustrations, but you can easily see it in the National Geographic field guide.
As a parting shot, here’s another bird (this one in California, in March) that is molting into its breeding plumage. It’s much easier to recognize!