Photo Quiz #1 Answer
By Jim Burns
All these birds were photographed in Arizona. One is a "snowbird", one is a rare and local breeder in our state, and one is a post-breeding visitor.
All photos copyright Jim Burns
A) Good photo, easy bird
Hummingbirds are all about color. Most hummers would not translate well to black and white. In fact this might be the only one that does. There are only two hummingbirds that would show white on the flanks such as this. One of them is the Anna's sitting on my back patio feeder right now. He's a breeding age male and if he is preening, in need of preening, or sitting just right I can see white patches above his wingline, the extension of the white on his lower belly.
However, no Anna's would ever show the large white lower back patch seen on the photo bird. Unfortunately, the major field guides also do not show this very diagnostic mark to the extent which it appears on our bird. This hummer is all about white areas. Anna's would never show the wide white whisker line below the eye, either. If you run into this hummingbird in southeastern Arianona in late summer, you should recognize it easily. All those white patches, and it is much larger than an Anna's.
We didn't say this bird was common, just easy to identify. If your really did your research, you know this photo appeared on the cover of the Cactus Wrendition , November-December 1992. This Plain-capped Starthroat was photographed in Portal, August 1992. In September 1984, one spent several days at a backyard feeder right here in Phoenix. So, keep a lookout.
B) Good photo, difficult bird
You knew I was going to do this to you. You just didn't know I would do it right away. This is not a Western Wood-Peewee because it has an eyering. This is an Empidonax flycatcher. Black and white and little is the perfect medium for Empids because you should be learning to separate them by structure (and voice), not color. They're all brownish/gray with various greenish or yellowish tones depending on season and molt. If you're going by color on Empids, you're going nowhere fast.
The best diagnostic feature on our photo is the primary extension (how far do the primaries extend beyond the secondaries on the folded wing?). This bird's primary extension is long, so long in fact that it makes the tail appear short. Next you should notice the eyering or absence thereof. Our Empid has a very distinct eyering which thickens behind the eye. A corroborative third feature is bill length. Our bird's bill is small, so small in fact that it makes the head look big.
So, let's summarize. Short-tailed, big headed, with an obvious eyering thickening behind the eye fits only one western Empidonax . Kenn Kaufmann's Advanced Birding has by far the best chapter on Empidonax identification you'll ever need. Study the primary extension, study the eyering, study the bill size and shape.
Fall is an especially good time in Arizona. A lot of Empids pass through and most of them will be in drab and worn plumage, so you won't be tempted to get hung up on color. This Hammond's Flycatcher was photographed in February, 1996, near Pena Blanca Lake in southern Arizona. Many Hammond's spend the winter in southern Arizona. The Sonoita Creek Preserve and the Paton's backyard are often good places to see them
C) Bad photo, easy bird
Another headless bird. You probably see them every time you go birding, but never underestimate the power of partial views. We have good field marks here, even without the help of head and bill size and shape. Imagine the spot-on timing and amazing coordination it took to photograph an in-flight bird with its head completely missing! And a large bird, at that, judging by the relative size of the fenceposts toward which it is gliding. This has to be a raptor.
We're in a grassland or scrub situation, and we have a dorsal (upper) view of a dark raptor gliding on long, rounded wings held flat in flight. The large white wing patches at the end of the wings and the white tail with a terminal band show up nicely. You can even see the vermiculations (thread-thin bands) in the white of the tail.
Kites, falcons, and accipiters would not show this wing and tail shape. The combination of the white patches and their placement on the bird eliminate vultures, eagles, and most of the buteos. A couple buteos deserve consideration: Harlan's Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks might show a similar tail pattern, but the former would not show the wing patches, and the wing patches on the latter would be only at the base of the primaries and much less extensive. Northern Harriers would show this jizz (keep watching this column for fancy new words), but their notable white patch is on the rump, not the tail.
This Crested Caracara was (partially) photographed near the Pinal Airpark pecan grove, October, 1992. Fall is the best time to find caracaras away from their rather restricted breeding area on the Tohono O'odham Reservation west of Tucson.