Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fall Warbler Quiz - Answers

It's long overdue, but here are the answers to the fall warbler photo quiz I posted a while back. Be sure to try the quiz before reading the answers.

Photo 1:

Photo 1 shows a bird that, in my opinion, falls under the category of "confusing fall warbler." This particular bird is plain, with some streaks, and relatively few prominent field marks. However, there are some characteristics on this bird that can help narrow it down quite easily. First, there are two prominent wingbars. In addition, the underside of the bird is a pale yellowish color, rather than the bright yellow of some warbler species. Looking through a field guide, there are only a few birds that fit this image, those in the Bay-breasted/Blackpoll/Pine group. These three species can appear very similar when viewed in the field. Pine can be ruled out for our bird by the streaks on the back. This leaves the "Baypoll" warblers. A few things to note are the few, dark streaks on the sides and the yellowish feet. These two field marks help identify this bird as a Blackpoll Warbler.

Photo 2:
Ahh! A warbler in flight. Impossible, right? Actually, this warbler is quite easy to identify. The first thing to notice is the bright yellow underside. This coloration rules out a number of warbler species. What other field marks are visible? One particularly useful field mark to use when identifying fall warblers is the undertail pattern. While many species have a similar pattern, there a few warblers, namely Palm, American Redstart, and Magnolia that have easily recognizable tail patterns. On this quiz bird, note that the tip of the tail is black, while the rest is white. This pattern is unique among the warblers and identifies this as a Magnolia Warbler. The yellow underside supports this identification.

Photo 3:
Like the previous photo, we can easily see the underside of the tail and body of this warbler. Unlike the Magnolia, the tail pattern is very plain. In fact, it appears entirely dark, rather than having a distinct pattern of white and black. This tail pattern narrows the pool of possible species down significantly. Next, take note of the bright yellow underside. This still doesn't identify the bird to species, but it gives us another clue as to its identity. Finally, look at the head. Yes, it is obscured by branches, but the gray color, strong white eyering, and yellow throat are all visible. These characteristics and the field marks previously mentioned all point to Nashville Warbler.

Photo 4:
Here we have a plain warbler species with a yellowish underside and two very strong white wingbars. As with the first photo in this quiz, these field marks leave us with the Blackpoll/Bay-breasted/Pine group. We cannot see streaks on the back to rule out Pine, but noting that this bird has no streaking on the underside and has all-dark feet help to eliminate Blackpoll. Next, look at the bird's flanks. Careful inspection shows a light pinkish wash. This is a characteristic of a fall Bay-breasted Warbler.

Photo 5:

In this photo, we have a very plain warbler. It is obvious that there are no bright colors or even significant field marks. Basically it's a brown, streaky bird. While brown and streaky may make sparrows difficult to identify, once we realize that this is a warbler (bill and body shape, behavior) the identification is actually quite easy. If we compare this bird to the one in the first quiz photo, we see that both birds are dull with dark streaks. However, one noticeable difference is the lack of bright wingbars in this bird. There are two faint lines visible, but nothing close to the immediately noticeable white wingbars on the Pine and "Baypoll" warblers. A lack of bright wingbars on a brown, streaky warbler narrows the identification down significantly. In fact, it really only leaves us with two possibilities, Yellow-rumped and Cape May Warblers. From this angle, we would be able to see a yellow patch near where the wing connects to the body if this were a Yellow-rump. Also, the bill would be shorter. That leaves Cape May Warbler. This is an extremely variable species in the fall, as some adult males are brilliant yellow, orange, and black and younger birds can be entirely brownish. When not immediately identifiable using the typical Cape May Warbler field marks (thick white wing patch, orange mark on face, grayish head on females), a good field mark for this species is the lack of obvious field marks!

I hope this quiz has been somewhat educational for those readers who have been perplexed by these confusing fall warblers! Although most warblers leave for the fall, Yellow-rumped Warblers and occasionally other species remain in this region for the winter... so keep an eye out for any winter warblers!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Birding in Superstorm Sandy

As anyone in the United States should know, a large storm hit the mid-Atlantic two weeks ago, bringing strong winds and rain to much of the eastern United States. This powerful storm brought hundreds of seabirds inland, causing jaegers to show up on inland lakes and storm-petrels to be found flying around major rivers. Birders all over the region flocked to locations where they could observe this unusual avian spectacle. For example, local birders at Beltzville State Park, just 9 miles from my house (as the tropicbird flies), found a number of incredible "storm birds" including Pomarine Jaegers, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Forster's Terns, Brant, all three scoter species, and a Cave Swallow. Wow. Due to strong winds, fallen trees, and dangling power lines along the roadways, I was unable to get to Beltzville. However, this did not mean I couldn't go birding. Throughout the day, I scanned the skies from my yard and porch hoping that something unusual would fly by.

For most of the day, the only birds moving overhead were small flocks of robins and the occasional Northern Flicker. Then, something changed. Around 3:15pm, I was working on moving boxes that were getting wet due to the newly-opened hole on the barn roof (thanks, Sandy). At one point, I looked to the north and noticed a large flock of small birds headed towards me. I quickly grabbed my binoculars and found the approaching flock against the dark gray sky. Their sudden movements and quick wingbeats quickly ruled out blackbirds, which is what I expected to see in such a large flock. These were something different. Before long, they were right overhead, and I could clearly see that these 30-40 birds were shorebirds, Dunlin in fact. These fast fliers disappeared into the fog and mist in a matter of seconds. But that was good enough for yard bird #182!

Flock of Dunlin
Now excited from finally seeing some interesting birds as a result of the bad weather, I set up a spotting scope on my front porch where I had a decent view of the sky and the Kittatinny Ridge, along which I imagined birds might be moving. Within minutes of scanning the ridgeline, I spotted another flock of shorebirds. This flock contained about 100 birds and moved right along the Kittatinny, which lies about a mile from where I was standing. As a result of this distance, "shorebird sp." is the best identification I could make of these distant specks, although it is very likely that these were more Dunlin. For the next hour or so, several flocks of presumed Dunlin passed overhead or along the major ridge.

Distant flock of shorebirds (likely more Dunlin)

 At one point, I was watching the shorebirds fly east along the ridge when a group of three ducks flew west across my binocular view. This got my heart rate up... who knows what ducks might show up as a result of the hurricane! I eventually re-spotted the group just before they disappeared into the fog--Mallards. Oh well.

The next fifteen minutes or so were slow, except for the passing of another shorebird flock or two. I then spotted a line of four distant ducks headed towards me. More Mallards, I figured. Nevertheless, I got the scope on them and focused on them one at a time. Male Mallard... male Mallard... female Mallard... WHAT?!?! I got enough of a look at the last bird to see that it was different, but as soon as I was able to focus the scope, the whole group of ducks disappeared into the fog, never to be spotted again. Based on the brief glimpse I got of the bird, it was likely a Northern Pintail, another locally unusual species, one that I had only seen from the yard once before. Soon after these ducks vanished into the mist, I observed two more ducks flying along the Kittatinny Ridge. These two ducks were clearly smaller than the numerous Mallards I had seen, but as luck would have it, they too dropped out of sight before I could get more than a quick silhouetted look. Darn... these could be awesome birds that I was missing. If only the visibility had been slightly better!

Although it was foggy and misty the entire time I was birding, there was very little steady rain... that is until I found something very intriguing. Just as I heard the sound of approaching rain, a group of about twenty dark birds appeared out of the mist from the western sky. Worried about the safety of my camera in the rain, I fired off a few quick shots before rushing for the cover of the front porch, from where I soon re-found the birds and got my binoculars on them. At this point I just about jumped for joy because of this new yard bird... Black. Scoter. A species I never even dreamed of seeing from the property. In less than a minute, the eastbound seaducks were out of sight, but I had just experienced something amazing and entirely unexpected.

Black Scoters flying east

Black Scoter flock flying in front of the Kittatinny Ridge
Unfortunately, after the scoters passed, things became extremely slow. The sky became even darker, the rain picked up, and birds stopped flying. I waited a while longer, but it seemed as if the heavier rain was going to stay. Just as I was wrapping things up, I heard a strange noise from the other side of the house. I ran out into the yard and watched as a flock of over 130 Brant flew low over the house! Honking the entire way, the gaggle moved quickly towards the southeast, soon engulfed by the same fog that had obscured many other waterfowl that day. Brant was the third new yard bird species for the day, bringing the yard list up to 184 species and the yard year list to 156 species!

Brant low over the yard

The only other exciting birds I saw that afternoon were 14 more Brant that followed the same course as the first flock.


No, I didn't see Pomarine Jaegers or Cave Swallows, but I still managed to have an awesome afternoon of birding thanks to Superstorm Sandy. It is terribly unfortunate that these birds can only be found in this area as the result of a destructive storm. As much as I would love to see seabirds in Pennsylvania, I hope it is a long time for another storm like this hits the region.