Photo Quiz #10 Answer
By Jim Burns
A) Good photo, easy bird
Harbingers of summer, butterflies of the bird world, why would we want to reduce our colorful warblers to black and white [in the newsletter - Ed.]? Well, because I wanted to celebrate the season, black and white is all we have to work with, and even reduced to black and white these three warblers show beautiful, bold markings. These photos say "warbler" because of the birds' small size, their thin, straight, pointed bills, and their obviously active postures.
The general rule in the bird world seems always to be, "if you've got it, flaunt it." This bird certainly has tail. There are four warbler species that constantly flash, spread, and display their tails, and they all have great tails: Hooded Warbler, Fan-tailed Warbler, and our two redstarts. Theoretically all four could be in Madera Canyon in spring, but how many have these great wingbars? Only the redstarts. How many redstarts have this prominent white crescent under the eye? Only the Painted.
Warblers are insectivores. This Painted Redstart was enjoying an insect breakfast along the Vault Mine Trail in upper Madera. The British common name for our Painted Redstart is "whitestart," and the stark black and white rendition here highlights the obvious reason. There are two theories behind this species' flashy wing and tail display. One is that the bright flash stirs up its insect prey. The other is that this is a contact display which helps pairs stay in touch in the deep shadows of its canyon and ravine environment. All we're missing here is the brilliant ruby breast, but that is often obscured in the shadows anyway. The blacks and whites are all you really need to locate and identify this beautiful bird.
B) Good photo, difficult bird
Here's another bird with bold wingbars. How many Arizona warblers have wingbars? Well, seven if you're counting only breeding species, but did you know that 49(!) warbler species have been recorded in the state. This is a difficult species for the casual birder because it is not expected in our state and, when seen, could easily be passed off as one of our "Arizona" warblers.
What do we have to work with besides wingbars? The bird shows a dark cheek patch under the light supercilium (eyebrow) and streaking on the back. The combination of these features with the wingbars leaves us with seven possibilities: Magnolia, Cape May, "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped, Townsend's, Black and White, Black-throated Gray, and Blackburnian. The salient point here is that only one of these seven is an Arizona breeder and only two are "Western" warblers, but all seven have been recorded in Arizona in the spring. A little color would certainly help us here, but wingbars and cheek patch might be all that you notice in a shadowed canyon as the bird flips away before you can focus your binoculars.
Fortunately the photo gives us two other vital visual clues which help with this black and white identification task. One is the bold median crown stripe, and the other is the bird's posture itself. Of our seven candidates, only one will show these prominent head streakings. And no, this photo is not upside down! The bird is. Of our seven candidates, only our quiz bird gleans along the trunks and main branches, prying about under the bark like a nuthatch, often hanging upside down in this peculiarly diagnostic foraging manner.
We needed no other colors on our palette for this Black-and-white Warbler. The Black-and-white is probably Arizona's most frequently recorded "Eastern" warbler. At a glance, even in good light, it might be mistaken for our Arizona breeder, Black-throated Gray, or for a Blackpoll, but the striped head and the bold white tertial (innermost wing feathers) edgings, which show in our photo along the outer back, separate it from these two even if its feeding jizz does not. And if you're looking straight up, getting "warbler neck," hopefully you're checking out the undertail coverts. The Black-and-white is very boldly streaked black and white there too. Only the two redstarts and Townsend's Warbler will also show undertail covert streaking. Our photo bird is a male. Females will not show the dark cheek patch.
The moral of this photo is that only California has more recorded warbler species than Arizona. Any Eastern warbler could, probably has, or probably will occur in our state. Look carefully! Be careful!
C) Bad photo, easy bird
Weird looking photo, isn't it? This was a good photographic idea which failed to translate into a good photograph. It was sort of an attempt to capture a warbler in flight without using a Dalebeam or a remote release. The bird looks suspended in air and appears to be answering the question: does a bird leave the perch and then activate the wings; or does it first activate the wings, thereby thrusting itself from the perch. I can personally vouch for the safety of this bird. It began flapping an eyeblink after this shutter release, but of course I failed to capture that on film.
The use of fast film to stop the action of the wings has resulted in more grain and less detail, but we certainly have enough detail for identification. As in our previous bird, we have bold wingbars, a dark cheek patch, and we can see just a hint of streaking on the back. Could this be a different view of a Black-and-white Warbler? No. The good view of the undertail coverts here shows them to be unstreaked, eliminating not only Black-and-white, but also Townsend's. That leaves us with only five of the candidates from our previous list.
You really don't need to go through the list if you've noticed the supraloral spot on our quiz bird. Remember the loral area is the feathering between the eye and the bill. Just above the lores in this photo is a small, pale area which does not appear light enough to be white. We need only a spot of yellow on our palette for this Black-throated Gray, a common breeding warbler in Arizona which will show the bright yellow supraloral spot in all plumages.
Be careful out there. In five of my twenty Black-throated Gray frames the bird is posed so that the supraloral spot does not show. Remember our quiz birds were all shot on the same day in Madera Canyon. I found one Black-throated Gray slide, admittedly a distant one which I kept because the bird is shucking some kind of seed, mislabeled "Black and White Warbler." Be careful out there. I heard two birders dismiss this bird as "just another chickadee." And if you've been smoking something and are going through an "optimistic" phase in your Arizona listing you might look at this guy in a dark canyon and see an immature Cerulean. Spring is a wonderful season, even here in the supposedly warbler-challenged West.