Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Birds in Flight (The Easy Ones)

As I have posted about before, the identification of birds in flight can be extremely difficult, for the birds are flying by quickly and often in poor light. These factors make this aspect of birding unappealing to many birders who then end up missing a lot of birds that fly over. Although I had been hawk watching before, I truly became interested in the identification of flying birds about a year ago as the fall migration season started. I was mainly interested in the non-raptors, as those had already been well-studied. Although the task seemed daunting at first, the more I looked at the birds, the easier it became to place a name to what I was seeing zip overhead. Take a look at the photos below to learn about some of the "easy" birds that are commonly seen flying overhead.

Any birder, and perhaps some non-birders, should be able to recognize this bird as a Canada Goose. See... you can identify birds in flight!

It may seem like a big transition from the last image, as this is an unclear image of a relatively plain bird. However, this is a common woodland species that can be identified by a number of clearly visible characteristics. First, when this bird was flying, I noted its relative size. It appeared to be larger than a warbler, but smaller than a robin. Second, most of the bird, including the underside and head, is a yellowish color. Finally, the tail and wings are dark, likely black. If you flip through any good field guide, you will see that the only bird that matches this description is the Scarlet Tanager.

Even a really good look at a flying bird can be misleading. This individual may seem unfamiliar at first, but if you look closely, it is one of our most recognizable bird species. The thick beak, pattern on the face, and crest (folded-down) identify this as a Blue Jay. This species also commonly vocalizes while flying.

Here we have a bird that seems to have relatively long wings and tail. The color of the underside looks orange, and the head appears darker. Often times, these characteristics are all that an observer needs to identify the very common American Robin. Robins also frequently vocalize while flying overhead, so it is useful to learn this various calls of this and other species.

Sometimes flying birds have a very distinctive characteristic that is not obvious when that species is seen sitting in a tree. For example, the large, white crescent marks on the wings of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks allow for quick, easy identification of this species in flight; however, this mark is rarely visible on a stationary bird. Grosbeaks are commonly seen flying over on September mornings after a good nocturnal migration, so keep an eye out for this species!

A final thing to look at in flying birds is whether they are in a flock or not. The songbird species mentioned above, like most migratory species, are relatively solitary birds. In this photo, it is clear that this small group of birds is traveling as a flock. This behavior significantly reduces the list of possible candidates. Next, note the fairly pointed wings that can be seen on the birds with wings outstretched. Together, these characteristics leave us with two species, Bobolink or Cedar Waxwing. Fortunately, birds in a flock often vocalize while flying overhead, and this flock was indeed vocalizing. The high-pitched trills identified these as Cedar Waxwings long before the flock was visible.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Gathering of Swallows

Each August, a large group of swallows gathers in the yard. This morning, I found one of these large groups flying around the yard. After a little while, the group settled, landing on the barn, power lines, and the house. The majority of the swallows were Barn Swallows, the most common swallow during this summer. About a week ago, the local population stood at about 22 individuals. This morning, I counted 52 individual Barn Swallows! The next common species was the Tree Swallow. This species also breeds on the property, but in much smaller numbers. During the past few weeks, I had seen about four Tree Swallows around the yard, but this morning there were close to 30!

A group of swallows from this morning

Although these two species are the common breeding swallow species, a few others showed up this morning. The first uncommon (for the yard) swallow was a Northern Rough-winged Swallow. This lone bird circled around and called its buzzy notes with some Tree Swallows before heading west along the ridge. Soon after, I heard a similar buzz, but this was from a Bank Swallow, an even rarer species! This small swallow sat alone on the line.

The tiny Bank Swallow preferred to sit away from the other swallows.

The third, and rarest species of the morning was the Cliff Swallow. While scanning through a group of Barn Swallows, I noticed one individual with a brighter forehead patch and a shorter tail. When the group took flight, I could easily see the tan rump, which immediately distinguished the Cliff from all of the other nearby swallows. As I searched the flock more carefully, I found three more Cliff Swallows! This is the highest count for this species in the yard!

Cliff Swallow

In flight, the tan rump patch of the Cliff Swallow is very visible and distinct.

Cliff Swallow (left) with two Barn Swallows