Photo Quiz #5 Answer

By Jim Burns

A) Good photo, easy bird


Dark over light body, with the eye in the dark; dark over light bill; boldly patterned dark and light tail. There's really no mistaking this bird for any other species, but Easterners are often surprised to see it here in Arizona, and it can often be maddeningly hard to locate in its preferred dense riparian habitat, even when heard calling. This Yellow-billed Cuckoo was shot along the San Pedro River in southern Arizona, July, 1993.

Cuckoos do not really time their Arizona breeding to the summer rains. They are just very late migrants, sometimes not arriving in the state in good numbers until late June. The San Pedro is probably the easiest location in the state to see them, though there are sporadic records from Maricopa County in places such as the riparian areas near Estrella Park.

During some years Yellow-billed Cuckoos seem much more common than in others. If you're wondering if this sporadic abundance is tied to Arizona's wet and dry cycles, this very wet year would seem to be a good year to find out.


B) Good photo, difficult bird

A small bird with a conical bill, this looks like a sparrow getting ready to sing from the top of a thorny bush. If you think sparrows all look the same in living color, how will we deal with them in black & white? Actually, as with Empidonax flycatchers, black & white may be the best learning medium for those of us who are sparrowly challenged, forcing us to consider shape first rather than flipping through a mental checklist of field marks which may be hard to memorize and/or hard to see well.

Forget plumage and note the three characteristics of shape which will place this sparrow into the proper sparrow group: heavy, chunky body; flat crown; and long, rounded tail. This is a good, close look at an Aimophila sparrow. We can eliminate Bachman's due to geography and Rufous-winged and Rufous-crowned due to time of year. The latter two do not wait for the summer rains to sing and breed. We are left with Botteri's and Cassin's, a tough but not impossible call if you see the bird without hearing its song.

There are three field marks in this photo which help with the distinction between these two species. Is the culmen (upper mandible) straight or rounded? Looks straight to me. Are the flanks beneath the folded wing streaked or plain? I see dark streaking. Do the uppertail coverts show black subterminal crescents or vertical black stripes? They show dark crescents with lighter edges. And . . . I heard the beautiful flight song, beginning with a double whistle, as the bird fluttered down onto the bush. This Cassin's, in fresh spring plumage, was photographed below Madera Canyon on Easter Sunday this year, very early by monsoon standards, but not early by this very wet year's overflowing rain gauge.

By comparison, Botteri's will show a rounded culmen, unmarked flanks, and longitudinal dark streaking on the uppertail coverts. Its "bouncing ball" song is reminiscent of Black-chinned Sparrow, and it more rarely sings before the true monsoon of late summer, even in wet years. And if you must do color, to my eye Cassin's always appears cold, with crisp and clean darks and lights , whereas Botteri's is a warmer, softer color with hints of rufous highlights in the auricular (ear) patch and scapulars (shoulder area).

C) Bad photo, easy bird


This crummy photograph aptly illustrates why closer is not always better. It's grainy, and its "in your face" angle is not nearly as visually pleasing as the Cassin's profile. The bird was in a shaft of light in the midst of deep shadows, the latter dictating the fast film in the camera at the time. Deeper shadows equal faster film equals more grain equals less contrast equals less detail.

But I chose this angle intentionally so you could count the stripes. There are five stripes on the chin: white/black/white/black/white. Or is that five white facial stripes and two thick black whisker marks? The stripes and the large, dark central spot at the base of the gray breast obviously identify this as a Seven-striped Sparrow, but you know how bird names can be.

This Five-striped was photographed at the George West Waterfall just below Proctor Road in Madera Canyon, June, 1996. I have same day photographs of another bird with a different shaped breast spot! It will be interesting to walk Proctor Road this monsoon season with ears open and Five-striped song well memorized. It beats leaving your oil pan and your exhaust pipe along the "road" into California Gulch.

And the answer to the trivia question is: the Five-striped gets its name from the five white facial stripes, not the five chin stripes.