Monday, December 20, 2010

Quiz #379 (2010-4-12) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

The focal bird of this week's quiz has whitish underparts, gray crown, dark bill, a longish tail with extensive white on the outermost pair of rectrices, and -- if one enlarges the picture and looks closely -- a yellowish eye. This suite of characters is found on very few ABA-area birds, with that last feature ruling out all options but one that would have been included in the solution set had the bird's eye been dark. Those ruled out by that eye color include a couple of gnatcatchers, a wagtail or two, and Townsend's Solitaire. The only ABA-area species exhibiting all of those features is Northern Mockingbird, particularly when one throws in size (one can use the Bayberry leaves for that size assessment).

So, I didn't fool many this week. Some readers may be wondering about what I write, but 15 of the 18 respondents noted that there was a second bird in the picture. That bird sports a yellow-based black bill, white underparts, brown upperparts, and extensive rufous in the primaries. Those features lead us, as above, to only one species: Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

As this quiz was the last of the 4th quarter's competition, there is an annual Colorado Field Ornithologists' membership (which includes receiving CFO's journal, Colorado Birds) to disburse. This quarter, two respondents got 10 of 12 quizzes correct, Tyler Bell and Chisun Kwong. The first tie-breaker is the number of bonus points earned in the quarter (bonus points are awarded primarily in multi-species quizzes, though I occasionally hand out the odd point for other reasons). Tyler's 8 topped Chishun's 4, so Tyler gets the CFO membership! Congratulations to Tyler, who is probably the single person that has responded to the most Mr. Bill Mystery Quizzes during my tenure as Mr. Bill; he's been playing a long time and seemingly knows all of my tricks!

As this quiz was also the last of the 2010 competition year, free registration to a CFO convention also needs awarding. As above, two respondents tied, here with 42 of 51 quizzes correct, Al Guarente and Joel Such. The first tie-breaker in this case is the number of incorrect answers, with the lower number winning out. Joel beat Al by one fewer incorrect answer, so he will be going to the 2011 Grand Junction convention! Congrats, Joel!

I want to take this opportunity to thank the 89 folks that responded to the Mr. Bill Mystery Quiz at least once in 2010; they are what keeps me in the Mr. Bill job. However, that total is the lowest during my tenure and the CFO Board and I will be spending some time this year changing things up a bit in hopes of tempting higher response rates. Stay tuned!

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - 1

Congratulations to the 15 of 18 getting the quiz correct:
Robert McNab
Marcel Such
Tyler Bell
Al Guarente
Hope Batcheller
Ben Coulter
Joseph Brown
Joel Such
Christian Nunes
Tucker Lutter
George cresswell
Chishun Kwong
Bryan Guarente
Gary Koehn
Pam Myers

Answer: Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Mockingbird

Monday, December 13, 2010

Quiz #378 (2010-4-11) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

Mea culpa! I forgot to put a red-text caveat with the original posting of this picture that respondents need not ID the two ducks in the upper right. So, since many attempted ID, I gave those that were correct in identifying them as Northern Shovelers (just two, Christian Nunes and Al Guarente) an extra bonus point and disregarded obvious attempts to ID them that went astray. Though the brown bird is probably not absolutely IDable, the bird with the dark head, white chest, and rufous side is certainly an adult (considering the date of the photo) male Northern Shoveler.

No respondents took a chance and provided me with the tack to her/his answer, so I guess that I'll have to provide the solution unassisted. The place to start might be the big, white things in the back. These were obviously Mute Swans as evidenced by the long and apparently-pointed tails; no respondents got them incorrect. Most respondents also got the front-right ducks correct: male and female American Wigeon. Though the female looks quite warm-colored, her pale inner secondary (visible as a bit of gray along the side) is, well, gray, rather than white and the head looks (on my screen, at least) grayish and not warm brown. None taking a stab at the male missed it, with its obvious white crown blaze and pink sides.

The real quiz subject was, however, the flying duck in the bottom left. I thought that it would give some fits and was right about it. The lack of any wing pattern and the contrastingly pale face should have ruled out all but the dark-winged scoters and Long-tailed and Ruddy ducks. The middle option is easily eliminated from consideration by the bird's dark belly. Surf Scoter can be ruled out by our quiz bird's black feet (Surf Scoters have orange feet, bright in males, dull in females; American Black Ducks all have bright reddish-orange feet). We can rule out Black Scoter by studying both ends of the bird: its face has a dark smudge and its tail is very short and spiky. Most importantly, though, those feet are ungodly big, a rarely-seen but distinctive feature of the species.

I took this picture of a flying female Ruddy Duck at Lighthouse Pond, Cape May Point SP, Cape May Co., NJ, on 31 October 2010.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Black Scoter - 3
Eurasian Wigeon - 1
American Black Duck - 1
Surf Scoter - 1
Bufflehead - 1

Congratulations to the 10 of 17 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Christian Nunes
Al Guarente
Joel Such
Marcel Such
Margaret Smith
Nick Komar
Robert McNab
George Cresswell
Chishun Kwong

Answer: Mute Swan, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck

Monday, December 6, 2010

Quiz #377 (2010-4-10) Solution


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Answer by Bryan Guarente and Tony Leukering

Bryan Guarente provided his tack to IDing this week's quiz bird, so we'll start there.

"We have a small passerine. It's got a dark beak, slightly darker streaking on paler underparts, yellow undertail coverts, a light supercilium and lower eye arc, and a notched tail. With only the yellow undertail coverts compared to the grayish overall body, and knowing the size, we are left with five species: Palm Warbler, Colima Warbler, Virginia's Warbler, Nashville Warbler, and Orange-crowned Warbler. Using the facial patterns, there are only two options left: Palm and Orange-crowned. From here the shape of the facial markings can be the biggest indicator. On our quiz bird, the supercilium goes well past the eye and back down the face. Palm Warbler is the only one of our two left that has this shape, so we have found our answer.

"Now, I am sure that Tony will go to the subspecies level with this bird, but I just don't have enough experience with the two subspecies to be able to do that, so I will let him tell us."

Thanks, Bryan. I want to point out an even stronger clue to separate these two species, but first, a little biogeography. All the folks that provided Orange-crowned as their answer live in the West, where that species is about the third-most-common warbler migrant. In the East, Orange-crowned is amazingly scarce as a migrant on the ground for a species with such a vast breeding range in eastern Canada. Now, one of the best clues for discerning Dendroica warblers from almost all other parulids is the presence of tail spots. Yes, some non-Dendroicas sport them (e.g., the "winged" warblers, Prothonotary, Hooded), but those tail spots are an excellent first decision point. This week's quiz bird sports large whitish tail spots on the outermost rectrices and, in fact, the shape, size, and placement of them would be all we would need to identify our wee beastie to species!

As Bryan guessed, we can go further than the species level with this one. There are two subspecies of Palm Warbler, nominate palmarum (Western) and eastern chryseola (Yellow). In Western Palm Warbler, the undertail coverts contrast (weakly in alternate plumage, strongly in basic plumage) with the color of the chest; in Yellow Palm Warbler, nearly the whole of the underparts are bright yellow. I took this picture of a Western Palm Warbler in 'morning flight' over my house in Villas, Cape May Co., NJ, on 15 September 2010. It was one of some 425 that I counted/estimated going by in just one hour -- the species was the most common bird in/over/past my yard that day!

Here in New Jersey in fall, Western Palm Warbler peaks earlier in the season (about mid-September) than does Yellow Palm Warbler (early to mid-October) and nearly all Palm Warblers occurring before mid-September are Westerns. In Colorado, Western Palm Warbler greatly outnumbers Yellow Palm Warbler (I think that there still might be fewer than 10 CO records of Yellow), as one might expect from comparing the ranges of the two. Interestingly though, virtually all Palm Warblers present in CO in the winter have been Yellows!

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Orange-crowned Warbler - 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 1

Congratulations to the 11 of 15 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Robert McNab
Al Guarente
Ben Coulter
Bryan Guarente
Pam Myers
Christian Nunes
Joel Such
Margaret Smith
Nick Komar
Peter Wilkinson
Chishun Kwong

Answer: Palm Warbler (western subspecies)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Quiz #376 (2010-4-09) Solution


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Picture taken in New Jersey

Answer by Tony Leukering

Six birds with no particular distinctive shape aspects at all. Bills not long, short, thick, thin; wings not long, short, pointed, rounded; tail not long, short, forked, wedge-shaped, rounded. You might be surprised at how many species the lack of 'interesting' shape features rules out. Additionally, the birds all seem to be of the same shape and size and they are dark.

The proportions and darkness of the birds suggest some sort of blackbird, with tail length and shape ruling out many (most?) of those. A couple of the birds that we can see well, have dark streaking on paler underparts (seen best on the middle-right bird, but also visible on the upper-right bird). This, then, rules out nearly all the other ABA-area species of blackbird. Brewer's and Rusty blackbirds have longer tails and lack streaking. Except for juveniles, cowbirds lack streaking, but the rest of the plumage does not match that of juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. Tricolored Blackbird doesn't sport a strongly streaked plumage -- particularly against such obviously paler underparts.

Assuming that the birds are all of the same species (and there doesn't seem to be any good reason why not), the upper-left bird may provide the best clue: reddish-orange lesser coverts. I took this picture of six immature Red-winged Blackbirds flying over the Cape May hawkwatch platform, Cape May Co., NJ, on 26 September 2010.

With two quizzes to go, three participants share the lead with 7 correct: Tyler Bell, Ben Coulter, and Chishun Kwong. Good luck to these and all participants!

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Pine Siskin - 1
Rusty Blackbird - 1
Phainopepla - 1

Congratulations to the 12 of 15 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Hope Batcheller
Al Guarente
Nick Komar
Ben Coulter
Christian Nunes
Pam Myers
Tom Takano
Joel Such
Robert McNab
Marcel Such
Chishun Kwong

Answer: Red-winged Blackbird

Monday, November 22, 2010

Quiz #375 (2010-4-08) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

Ah, well. I was hoping for a respondent's answer that would treat the ID of this week's quiz bird and did not get one, which is actually a rare thing. I guess that I'll have to do it all by myself!

As all respondents noted, this week's subject is a raptor. With its eye color (dark), we can quickly rule out many juvenile buteos, all accipiters, older Bald Eagles, many kites, and older female and most male harriers. Closer scrutiny of the eye region should result in noticing the ill-defined blackish bar running vertically below the eye, a virtually-certain indicator of a falcon. An ID of a falcon would also agree with the apparently narrow and tapered wingtip. The sheer darkness of the bird should narrow our choices to Merlin, Gyrfalcon, and Peregrine Falcon, where the combination of distinct buffy superciliary and indistinct vertical bar below the eye should leave us only the first choice.

I took this picture of a columbarius (Taiga) Merlin at the hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point SP, Cape May Co., NJ, on 20 September 2010. Both Prairie (richardsoni) and Black (suckleyi) Merlins are ruled out by that buffy super.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Rough-legged Hawk - 1

Congratulations to the 14 of 15 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Robert McNab
Thomas Hall
Ben Coulter
Nick Komar
George Cresswell
Pam Myers
Margie Joy
Al Guarente
Peter Wilkinson
Adrian Hinkle
Christopher Hinkle
Joe Bens
Chishun Kwong

Answer: Merlin

Monday, November 15, 2010

Quiz #374 (2010-4-07) Solution


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Three views of the same individual

Answer by Tony Leukering

Presumably due to the combination of wing bars, flank streaking, and yellow underparts, all respondents thought that this week's quiz bird was a warbler. The important bits to notice on the wee beastie are:

1) whitish wing bars that are not that prominent (seen best in the right (R) picture, and blown out of proportion in the L picture);
2) blackish flank streaking (L and center (C) pictures);
3) undertail covert color (L);
4) face pattern (C and R); and
5) back color (R).

While leg color might also have been a feature to study, all of the similar species share this species' leg color: black. There aren't that many warbler species that combine yellow underparts with blackish flank streaking, and most of those sport white undertail coverts. Our bird's pale yellow undertail coverts (contrastingly paler than the ground color of the flanks) would be the first and one of the more deadly strikes against Magnolia and Cape May warblers, the former due to the color of the undertail coverts, the latter only partly so. Some Cape Mays have yellow-washed undertail coverts, but those tend to be adult males and those exhibit whitish flanks.

Palm Warblers do have yellow undertail coverts, but they are at least as bright as the flanks (Yellow Palm Warbler) if not brighter (Western Palm Warbler); they are never duller. Additionally, the color of the flank streaking is incorrect for that species. The greenish back helps rule out Kirtland's, which is also ruled out by the yellow undertail coverts, and blackish flank streaking rules out the only non-Dendroica provided as answers by respondents, Orange-crowned Warbler.

Despite all of the above, the back and face are sufficient unto the day to identify our quiz bird. Though very subtle, the bird's back has a hint of reddish streaking. The face, however, is not as subtle. There are large pale areas above and below the eye and a distinctly darker bottom edge to the auriculars and a dark eyeline behind the eye. Those pale areas around the eye are not thin and well-defined, but broad and blurry. The combination of features presented lead to only one solution, with the final two being definitive individually.

I took these pictures of an immature Prairie Warbler from the hawkwatch platorm at Cape May Point SP, Cape May Co., NJ, on 11 September 2010.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Palm Warbler - 2
Orange-crowned Warbler - 1
Magnolia x Prairie Warbler - 1
Cape May Warbler - 1

Congratulations to the 16 of 21 getting the quiz correct:
Ben Coulter
Chuck Carlson
Jim Mountjoy
Margaret Smith
Marcel Such
Joel Such
Su Snyder
Nick Komar
Brandon Percival
George Cresswell
Margie Joy
Peter Wilkinson
Tyler Bell
Adrian Hinkle
Christopher Hinkle
Chishun Kwong

Answer: Prairie Warbler

Monday, November 8, 2010

Quiz #373 (2010-4-06) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

Ah, ducks. Quite the interesting group, ducks. Also, quite the interesting responses birders have to them. Most of the adult males in breeding dress swimming on a pond in close range don't scare folks, but any other situation causes many of us consternation. However, ducks exhibit a plethora of characters useful in field ID, if we just know what bits to ogle.

Here, we have some 36 ducks overhead and turning away -- definitely a view to which many birders would object if we insisted on them IDing the birds. There are darned few really "pretty" ones and we cannot see the upperparts. Underwing patterns are exceedingly useful at identifying ducks in flight, and these ducks are no exception. All of them sport dark leading edges, white centers, and gray trailing edges, with dark wingtips. Amazingly, this single character gets us down to just American Wigeon, the "blue-winged teal" (Blue-winged and Cinnamon teal, Northern Shoveler, and Garganey), and Green-winged Teal. Of the 36 birds, six of them provide a good starting point at IDing the rest, and these are all indicated by white arrows in the below picture.



Though some of these six aren't as clearly depicted as others, the top four present an excellent chance to specifically ID some of these beasties. Their heads are brown with white feathering at the base of the bill, and with black bills. These are Blue-winged Teal. The white on the face helps us rule out Cinnamon and none of them really sport the large, spatulate bills typical of Cinnamon Teal. And if their bills aren't big enough to be those of Cinnamon Teal, they sure aren't big enough to be those of Northern Shovelers. The bill color rules out Green-winged Teal that aren't adult males in breeding colors and the white in the face rules out breeding-condition males.

With that decision made, we can then make the next one: that the ducks are all small ducks, as there really aren't any that look any larger than the Blue-winged Teal. Certainly, some look a bit larger, some a bit smaller, but much of that is due to differing distances from the camera. For the rest of the birds on which we can see the forehead reasonably well, they all seem to sport steep foreheads with a fairly sharp angle from crown to forehead. That should rule out all of the "blue-winged teal," as those species typically show a more sloped forehead, lacking a strong crown-forehead angle (like our four top Blue-winged Teal). And now, we get to the focus of the quiz. The underwing patterns in Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal are similar, certainly, but they also differ in a consistent fashion. The white on Green-winged Teal is thinner and contrasts more strongly with the dark secondaries. Additionally, most Blue-winged Teal have the white extend into the greater primary coverts, where it contrasts with the dark lesser primary coverts; all of a Green-winged Teal's primary coverts are gray. For those keeping count, that makes six Blue-winged Teal and 30 Green-winged Teal in this picture that I took at Cape May Point SP, Cape May Co., NJ, on 17 September 2010.

Two respondents this week submitted no incorrect species, but did not provide enough correct ones. As for the four responses providing American Wigeon as one of the species present, I am guessing that the bird just left of the bottom-right-most bird is the one that was confused. Though it looks a fair bit larger than the bird to its right, I suspect that it's a bit closer to the camera than is that other bird. Additionally, the appearance of that bird -- brown sides, contrasting with white belly -- is matched by other individals present that are not apparently larger.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Redhead - 1
American Wigeon - 4
Cinnamon Teal - 1

Congratulations to the 9 of 17 getting the quiz correct:
Ben Coulter
Al Guarente
George Cresswell
Margie Joy
Peter Wilkinson
Margaret Smith
Su Snyder
Chishun Kwong
Bryan Guarente

Answer: Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal

Monday, November 1, 2010

Quiz #372 (2010-4-05) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

"It took me two days to even SEE the bird!" -- Chris Warren

As I sit here listening to The Outlaws' "Green Grass & High Tides," after a full week of extra-high tides here in Cape May due to the gigantic low sitting to our north, I note that the critical feature of this week's quiz was not, particularly, identifying the bird, but simply finding it. Even those that provided an incorrect answer that actually found the bird, may not have actually SEEN the bird. One incorrect respondent SAW the bird just one day too late, and to paraphrase his comments, once he SAW it, it was easy.

The picture below is the same picture as the quiz photo, just cropped out of the very top-left corner, where the only bird in the picture resided. Yes, this would normally have been a throw-away, but right before I clicked on the garbage can, I thought, "That will make an excellent photo quiz!"


In this version of the quiz photo, we can readily see the distinctive tail pattern of American Redstart, along with the wing stripe created by the yellow bases of the remiges. I took the picture from the "Dike" at Higbees Beach SWA, Cape May Co., NJ, in early September 2010.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Townsend's Solitaire - 1
European Starling - 1
Bushtit - 1
hummingbird, sp. - 1
Baltimore Oriole - 1

Congratulations to the 15 of 20 getting the quiz correct:
Robert McNab
Tyler Bell
Richard Jeffers
Margaret Smith
Ben Coulter
Pam Myers
Tom Takano
Christian Nunes
Jim Nelson
Margie Joy
Chris Warren
Chishun Kwong
Bryan Guarente
Joel Such
Marcel Such

Answer: American Redstart

Monday, October 25, 2010

Quiz #371 (2010-4-04) Solution


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No ABA-area rarity is present in this picture.

Answer by Tony Leukering

Though 16 individuals made up this quiz, for most respondents, the only real question was "What is that second shorebird?", and only four respondents got that bird to the correct genus. So, we'll leave that one for last.

The first shorebird is the hefty black-and-white thing with an extensively orangish-red bill, which was ID'ed by all as an American Oystercatcher (the dark tip to the bill lets us know that it's a juvenile). There are three ducks, one of which has a hidden head. However, it is the same size (roughly) as the other two and has a long, low-slung body, whitish tail, orange legs, and rufousy flanks with some internal markings on the individual feathers. These features make it a good match for the two other ducks, which by their overall brownish coloration, massive orange bills, and dark-yellow eyes are known as female Northern Shovelers; the partly-hidden bird is a male Northern Shoveler still in mostly alternate (or eclipse) plumage.

Now, onto the gulls. Do I hear an "Amen!"? There are 11 of 'em and all look about the same size. In the front right corner, there is a nice brown thing that most probably immediately pegged for a juvenile Laughing Gull (though it has started its pre-formative molt, as evidenced by some gray scapulars), as there just aren't any other options sharing the bird's long black wings with little or no white primary tips, white underparts, smooth brown head, and black bill. The young gulls behind this one and the one to the right of the American Oystercatcher are quite similar, though the left of the two does have fairly distinct white primary tips. We might consider Franklin's Gull for that bird, but its back and wings are not nearly scaly enough and the wings are too long for that bird to be a Frankie. Also, there's no suggestion of a Franklin's Gull half-hood.

The adult gulls in the picture all have medium-gray mantles, with most showing either black legs or a black bill; none show a half-hood and the ones on which we can see the head well, there is little in the way of black there. So, these are all Laughing Gulls, too. The two gulls in the back left are both 1st-cycle Laughing Gulls, though the case may be difficult to prove on the left of the two. Regardless, it's not identifiable as any other species, seeing as how they're roughly the same size as all of the other Laughing Gulls.

Now, that second shorebird. The first aspect of it that we ought to note is its size -- in fact, that is a feature that we should almost always judge first, when possible. The bird appears nearly as large as a Laughing Gull. Though the feeding posture appears very dowitcher-like, the size should rule those species out, as does the extensively pink base to the bill. Willet was also promulgated by multiple respondents, but the color of the bill base should eliminate that option, as does the single obviously and distinctly black-and-white lower scapular. This bird's size and bill color should leave us no options other than the godwits and curlews (which, of course, includes Whimbrel), with the latter group ruled out by that same black-and-white scapular. Once among the godwits, Black-tailed is ruled out by the red-text caveat with the picture, because that species is an ABA-area rarity.

At this point, I'm glad that no one provided Bar-tailed Godwit as an answer, as I don't know how to rule that species out with the view that we have. I had meant the caveat to say that there were no NEW JERSEY rarities included, but good intentions being what they are.... Suffice it to say that the bird is not a Bar-tailed Godwit. Marbled Godwit should look larger than a Laughing Gull and lacks our birds strongly white distal half of the underparts.

I took this picture of three Northern Shovelers, one each American Oystercatcher and Hudsonian Godwit, and 11 Laughing Gulls from the hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point SP, Cape May Co., NJ, on 19 September 2010. Ben Coulter gets kudos for being the only person to get the second shorebird right, but also for providing the list of species in his answer in taxonomic order! Below, I provide another picture of the same godwit that I took on the same date to prove the ID.



Incorrect species provided as answers:
Long-billed Dowitcher - 1
Short-billed Dowitcher - 3
Willet - 2
Whimbrel - 2
Common Eider - 1
Mallard - 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 1
Marbled Godwit - 3
dowitcher, sp. - 2

Congratulations to the 1 of 15 getting the quiz correct:
Ben Coulter

Answer: Northern Shoveler, American Oystercatcher, Hudsonian Godwit, and Laughing Gull

Monday, October 18, 2010

Quiz #370 (2010-4-03) Solution


Click on picture(s) for a larger view.
Picture taken in August

Answer by Tony Leukering

Ah, peeps, aren't they grand! Those providing Sanderling as answer (5 of 14 incorrect answers) hopefully just didn't note that our quiz bird has a hind toe on each foot. Another five incorrect respondents did not note that the bird shows partial webbing in that nicely photographed left foot. The four toes/foot and the partial webbing on a peep leaves us only two options: Semipalmated and Western sandpipers.

The above means that 12 of 22 respondents got to the correct set of two species, at which point, the quiz gets really difficult, because we cannot see the bill, which often provides our best ID clue. I provided the month in which the photograph was taken in order to ensure that folks were considering adult peeps in the beginning of pre-basic mnolt, rather than birds nearing the end of pre-alternate molt. Our bird has obviously started its pre-basic molt, and has grown in a smattering of basic scapulars to replace the dark alternate scaps. Taking a critical look at the remaining alternate scaps, I cannot find a single feather with a rufous fringe. Oh, there are some scaps with worn warm brown fringes, but none with rufous fringes, as would be shown by Western Sandpiper. Even more importantly, none show a rufous base, which is even more critical.

Molt timing is of immense assistance in sorting between Western and Semipalmated sandpipers, but age also plays a part in molt timing, so we need to be very careful of using molt timing willy-nilly to ID individuals of this duo. Pyle (2008) states that timing of the pre-basic molt of fully adult (>2 yrs old) Semis is "August-Nov/Jan" while that of 2nd-year birds is "May-Nov in non-breeding birds." O'Brien et al. (2006) depict a molting adult Semipalmated Sandpiper in July (picture 11) that is fairly similar to our quiz bird.

I used this picture in the Mr. Bill Mystery Quiz to drive home one of my most harped-upon messages: "One-character IDs are suspect; check everything that you can." Yes, many aspects of this bird's plumage is similar to that of Sanderling, but that species lacks hind toes. Yes, White-rumped Sandpiper is known to have streaks on the flank, but so do other peeps, and White-rumpeds lack webbing between their toes. Thus, studying this quiz bird's foot right off the bat -- and the posture should nearly force our eyes to at least look at that left foot -- would have gotten us down to two species (assuming that one eliminates Willet and a few other species on size/structure) and bypassed the problems of misconstruing flank streaking and overall appearance.

I took this picture of a molting adult Semipalmated Sandpiper in my back yard in Villas, Cape May Co., NJ, on 17 August 2010. Due to the extreme difficulty of this quiz picture, I have given all those providing 'Western Sandpiper' as an answer a bonus point for getting to the right pair of species, though have counted their answers as incorrect for the competition.

Literature Cited
O'Brien, M., R. Crossley, and K. Karlson. 2006. The Shorebird Guide. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Pyle, P. 2008. Identification Guide to North American Birds, part II. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Western Sandpiper - 4
Sanderling - 5
Baird's Sandpiper - 3
White-rumped Sandpiper - 2

Congratulations to the 8 of 22 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
George Cresswell
Al Guarente
Robert McNab
Su Snyder
Margaret Smith
Adrian Hinkle
Christopher Hinkle

Answer: Semipalmated Sandpiper

Monday, October 11, 2010

Quiz #369 (2010-4-02) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

We've got an obviously small bird (compare to leaf sizes) with a lot of distinct field marks, what with flank streaks, wing bars, tail spots, back streaking, interesting crown pattern, yellow superciliary, and, of course, braces. Despite this, interestingly, even many of the correct respondents seemed to have trouble with the quiz subject. As I've mentioned many times in this and other venues, I believe that one-field-mark identifications are anathema. However, the experienced and skilled birders often use single field marks to ID birds, that is, once they've got them assigned to some smaller group.

With the plethora of the specific field marks exhibited by our quiz bird, we really have no reason to find ourselves anywhere but among the warblers; ah, the New World warblers. We can eliminate all the non-blackish-streaked and/or non-wing-barred species, leaving us with a manageable handful: Magnolia, Cape May, Yellow-rumped, Kirtland's, Prairie, Yellow-throated, Blackburnian, Cerulean, Golden-cheeked, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Gray, Golden-cheeked, and Townsend's. Our bird's strong yellowish super eliminates most of the lot, leaving the final seven from that list. At this point, that single superb field mark comes into play, the braces.

For those that don't know the term, 'braces,' it is a British term for contrastingly pale (usually whitish) streaks on the sides of the back. Our quiz bird sports them, the other six remaining candidates lack them. In fact, we could have short-stopped the process once we knew we were among the warblers, as this species is the only ABA-area parulid that exhibits braces. However, by using the crown pattern and distinctly dark back, we could have gotten to the same place.

I took this picture of an immature Blackburnian Warbler at Cape May Point, Cape May Co., NJ, on 10 September 2010.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Cape May Warbler - 1
Townsend's Warbler - 2
American Goldfinch - 1
Blackpoll Warbler - 1

Congratulations to the 21 of 26 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Su Snyder
Robert McNab
George Cresswell
Margaret Smith
JoAnn Andrews
Chuck Carlson
Thomas Hall
Richard Jeffers
Margie Joy
Brandon Percival
Al Guarente
Nick Komar
Peter Wilkinson
Pam Myers
Tom Takano
Adrian Hinkle
Ben Coulter
Joel Such
Marcel Such
Chishun Kwong

Answer: Blackburnian Warbler

Monday, October 4, 2010

Quiz #368 (2010-4-01) Solution


Click on picture(s) for a larger view.

Answer by Marcel Such and Tony Leukering

Marcel Such provided a good answer, so I will start this solution with his words.

"For this quiz, we have a proportionately large bird in flight, heading directly toward the camera. It has fairly long, broad wings; a well-built body; and long, black legs. One thing that I’ll use to narrow our possibilities down a bit is the neck . . . a long one, which is being carried in a characteristic curved, or S-shaped, posture. Of the birds in the long-necked-and-long-legged category – families Ardeidae, Ciconiidae, and Gruidae, or herons, ibis, and cranes, respectively – only the herons hold their necks in such a way; all of the others fly with necks held out straight.

"From here, it is an easy jump to the correct species by looking at the distinctly bicolored wings (white on the leading edge, black on the trailing edge) and body (rust red on the front end, and pure white on the back end). This leaves us with only one possibility, a juvenile Tricolored Heron (adults have a slate blue-purple head and neck). But, there is a problem on this bird, the legs. Our quiz bird has black legs, not the expected bright yellow ones. I’m going to stick with my conclusion of a Tricolor, believing that the odd coloration is due to a weird trick of the light, or that the legs are covered in mud or some other dark substance. Or something completely different."

I also liked Robert McNab's answer: "Since Pterodactyls are extinct (and not birds), I'll have to go with Tricolored Heron."

I was gratified to receive no answers that included a hyphen in the quiz species' name; this is a common mistake made by birders.

Marcel was correct in thinking that one of the options for the apparently dark legs was photographic effect. This bird's legs are yellow, the color is just not apparent in the quiz picture, though is in the supplementary picture that I provide below. I took both pictures of the same bird at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, Cape May Co., NJ, on 21 August 2010, the same date and place as the previous Mr. Bill quiz photo.


With most of the fourth quarter to go, there's a tight race for the annual competition title, with Joel Such (34 correct), Al Guarente (33), and Peter Wilkinson (32) being the front-runners.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Wood Stork - 1
Whooping Crane - 1
White Ibis - 2
Black Skimmer - 1
Willet - 1

Congratulations to the 16 of 22 getting the quiz correct:
Peter Wilkinson
Al Guarente
Joel Such
Chuck Carlson
Tyler Bell
George Cresswell
Richard Jeffers
Christian Nunes
Pam Myers
Robert McNab
Adrian Hinkle
Margaret Smith
Margie Joy
Marcel Such
Joe Bens
Chishun Kwong
Answer: Tricolored Heron

Monday, September 27, 2010

Quiz #367 (2010-3-12) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

Since this is not a dragonfly quiz, the subject must be that big white blob in the background. There aren't an awful lot of large white birds that occur in the ABA area, so this ought to be fairly straightforward. The really long neck rules out American White Pelican and the white geese, and the bill color rules out all of the other options but one. Yes, the orange bill with a suggestion of a black base must make our quiz bird a Mute Swan. Juvenile swans of the other ABA-occurring species can have colorful bills, but they would be pink or pinkish, rather than orange and would show more extensive dark bits. (Snow Goose does not sport a nearly unicolored bill.)

I took this picture of a Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) that just happened to have a Mute Swan in the background at the TNC's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (aka South Cape May Meadows), Cape May Co., NJ, on 21 August 2010. The glider can be identified by the combination of yellow body, red eyes, lack of strong black lateral stripe or row of spots/patches, and lack of spot at hindwing base. Wandering Glider is the only odonate found on all six continents on which Odonata occur. Two respondents identified the dragonfly correctly. While no credit was given for that in the competition, I indicated those correct respondents with an asterisk to give them some additional glory.

With this being the last quiz of the quarter, it's time to award the quarterly prize: a year's membership in CFO. Three players (Chuck Carlson, Su Snyder, and Peter Wilkinson) tied with 10 of 12 correct and with no bonus points awarded this quarter, the tie-breaker is a coin toss (rather, a spreadsheet-generated random integer between 1 and 3, inclusive), with the winner being...

Su Snyder! Congratulations!

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Snow Goose - 1
American White Pelican - 2

Congratulations to the 14 of 17 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell *
Su Snyder *
Tom Takano
Nick Komar
Bryan Guarente
Al Guarente
George Cresswell
Robert McNab
Thomas Hall
Margie Joy
Peter Wilkinson
Chuck Carlson
Marcel Such
Joel Such

Answer: Mute Swan

Monday, September 20, 2010

Quiz #366 (2010-3-11) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

A flying shorebird with mostly-white underparts and black feet, with the latter feature doing a pretty good job at knocking down the number of possibilities, is this week's quiz bird. The bill is black, somewhat thick, and blunt-tipped. There is a hint of some reddish on the face and throat and the upperside of the wings looks like it sports a fairly wide white wing stripe. With all of the quiz bird's obvious field marks, one that might get overlooked is the color of the bird's wrists -- they're black. Black wrists contrasting with wide white wing stripe in combination with the other characters point to only one species. I took this picture of a molting adult Sanderling at Villas, Cape May Co., NJ, on 20 August 2010.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
none

Congratulations to the 19 of 19 getting the quiz correct:
Chuck Carlson
Richard Jeffers
Peter Wilkinson
Tyler Bell
Robert McNab
Margie Joy
Donna Nespoli
Pam Myers
Margaret Smith
Al Guarente
Nick Komar
George Cresswell
Christian Nunes
Su Snyder
Marcel Such
Joe Bens
Joel Such
Bryan Guarente
Thomas Hall

Answer: Sanderling

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quiz #365 (2010-3-10) Solution


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Answer by Margie Joy, Peter Wilkinson, and Tony Leukering

Margie Joy provided a fairly thorough answer, so the solution will start there.

"This week’s quiz bird, shown from below (so no upper markings) seems to be fairly small. It has a short, dark, somewhat-forked tail; dark head and throat with a fairly well-defined lower border; a pale band or collar that extends at least around the side of the neck; small, pointed bill; pale undersides with some erratic dark streaking extending onto the undertail coverts; and pointed wings. The underwing coverts are fairly dark, contrasting with slightly paler flight feathers. Because the underside of the bird is in shadow, it’s difficult to tell if the flight feathers are really this pale or if bright sunlight from behind makes it seem so. But there is at least some contrast.

"The pointed wings restrict the possibilities to swallows and a few flycatchers. The short tail eliminates the flycatchers, leaving me with the swallows (including martins) to consider. The wings of Cliff and Cave swallows are generally less pointed and the tails more square than those of the other swallows. Underwing coverts are pale, not dark like the quiz bird’s. I looked twice at Cliff Swallow, however, because of the dark head/throat, heavily streaked undertail coverts, and pale collar or neck band, but couldn’t make the other marks fit. Tail shape eliminates Barn Swallow.

"Swallows with white or pale throats in all plumages (Bank, Violet-green, Tree, and Bahama) can be eliminated. Northern Rough-winged Swallow can have a dusky (but not really dark or with a well-defined lower border) throat in some plumages, muted (not dark) streaking on the underparts, and the tail is square. That doesn’t quite fit so it’s out, too.

"That brings me to martins. There are several accidental martins on the ABA list, but none fits the quiz bird’s description, leaving me with Purple Martin. Sibley shows this kind of dark, erratic streaking (incoming dark adult feathers) on underparts on male Purple Martin in first summer plumage. The underwings, as shown in my field guides, are fairly dark overall but do show some contrast between flight feathers and darker coverts. So far, so good. I struggled a bit with the pale collar that I see on the quiz bird; it seems to have more contrast than that shown in field-guide illustrations. I will chalk that up to poor lighting and variability of individuals, and stay with Purple Martin as my answer."

Thanks, Margie!

I had meant to provide a caveat with the picture when I posted it indicating that the picture was taken in New Jersey and was not an ABA-area rarity. Fortunately, no one attempted one of the south-of-the border purple Progne martins, as they can be VERY difficult to separate from Purple. Additionally, Peter Wilkinson (our resident UK resident) provided his thoughts (and correct they were) about ageing and sexing the quiz bird.

"Anything but purple, of course, in this plumage. Interesting mo(u)lt limit, apparently suspended after the two innermost primaries. I haven't managed to track much down on this, but this is presumably a second calendar year male (one reference says adults start with the outermost secondary, which this clearly hasn't) but if this isn't going to finish the remaining primaries until it is back in its winter quarters, they are going to be 15+ months old."

Thanks, Peter!

I took this picture from the roof of my house in Villas, Cape May Co., NJ, on 20 August 2010, a time at which southbound Purple Martin migration has nearly completed at that latitude.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Northern Rough-winged Swallow - 2
Cliff Swallow - 1

Congratulations to the 12 of 15 getting the quiz correct:
Robert McNab
Al Guarente
Claire Mix
Peter Wilkinson
Su Snyder
Chuck Carlson
Margaret Smith
Tyler Bell
Bryan Guarente
Joel Such
Marcel Such
Thomas Hall

Answer: Purple Martin

Monday, September 6, 2010

Quiz #364 (2010-3-09) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

All respondents got to the correct family -- Tyrannidae -- for this week's quiz bird. However, as indicated somewhat by the short number of respondents (on the more difficult quizzes, response rates tend to decline), this one was, as one respondent noted, "evil." Despite any evilness, a plurality of respondents (including our one
regular Brit) did get it correct, but just barely.

The strong whitish fringes to the tertials and the hints of green in the upperparts rule out Say's Phoebe, which has gray-fringed tertials and browner upperparts. Once one is among the type genus of the family (Tyrannus) -- nothing else really matches our bird, the very dark tail and rump contrasting with a much paler back leave us only the options of Cassin's and Western kingbirds. Once there, we need to look at parts very carefully.

Our quiz bird is facing away, so the throat/face contrast is impossible to assess. While the bird's tail seems to lack white edges (Western), it also seems to lack a tannish-white tip (Cassin's). The upperparts really seem too pale and contrast too much with the bird's black rump and the tail really seems black, not the very dark brown of Cassin's. But, why doesn't the tail show white sides? Recall that on the folded tail, the outer feathers are layered under the inner feathers such that what appears to be the outer edge of the tail is not actually the outer edge. Studying the tail closely, we can see that only one tail feather is visible on the bird's left side; well, except for the very tip of another one. Since the innermost tail feathers lie on top, we are definitely NOT seeing the outermost rectrix, unless that very thin white edge on the basal half of the tail is that outermost feather peeking out. Despite not being able to see the bird's tail's edges, we can definitely see the tips of multiple feathers and none of them sport the obvious wide pale tip typical of Cassin's, though there is one -- and only one -- feather showing something of a pale tip.

Below, I provide another view of this Western Kingbird that I took in Logan Co., CO, on 19 June 2010. Another nail in the coffin for an ID as Cassin's may be detected by examining the wing formula -- the number of primary tips visible and the spacing among them on the folded wing. In Western Kingbird, 4-5 primary tips should be visible beyond the longest tertial; our quiz bird shows 4. On the bird's left wing, one can somewhat discern that the distance between the tip of the longest primary and the next-longest visible primary (gap 1) is just a bit shorter than the distance across the next gap (gap 2) between tips up -- toward the inside of -- the wing. Cassin's sports a fairly short lowest gap (gap 1) with the next gap up (gap 2) being very wide.

After 9 quizzes this quarter, Chuck Carlson, Margie Joy, Su Snyder, and Peter Wilkinson are tied for the lead with 7 correct.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Cassin's Kingbird - 5
Say's Phoebe - 3
Tropical Kingbird - 1

Congratulations to the 6 of 15 getting the quiz correct:
Al Guarente
Peter Wilkinson
Margie Joy
Robert McNab
Su Snyder
Joe Bens

Answer: Western Kingbird

Monday, August 30, 2010

Quiz #363 (2010-3-08) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

An obvious cormorant with an orange gular patch with a white border must be a Neotropic! Well, while that feature is one that is consistent with an ID of Neotropic Cormorant, it is also consistent with an ID of Double-crested Cormorant, at least of some youngsters (particularly juvs). So, that is the decision to be made this week, as the other visible features, particularly the pale underparts with neck being as pale as belly, rule out all other ABA-area possibilities. Unfortunately for the difficulty factor, the quiz bird's underparts are just too pale to be those of a Neotropic. Additionally, the rear border of the gular patch is around vertical, unlike the border of Neotropic, which is canted forward (from top to bottom) some 45 degrees.

I photographed this juvenile Double-crested Cormorant at Orange Beach, Baldwin Co., AL, on 9 August 2010.

One answer was considered incorrect for the competition, as it capitalized the first 'c' in the name (see rules) and a second did the same and also neglected to include the hyphen. Another answer included an incorrect assessment of age with the (correct) species answer. Please note the rules and keep any assessment of age/sex/plumage separate from your species answer, e.g., in parentheses, on a separate line. This is because if one responds with something like "male Northern Cardinal" and the quiz bird is a female Northern Cardinal, one's answer cannot be correct. It is considered correct enough for the respondent's name to be listed in the queue of respondents getting the correct species, but is not considered correct for the competition.

Finally, it is heartening to see the response rate to the quiz climb a bit this week, with a number of new players.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Neotropic Cormorant - 8

Congratulations to the 16 of 24 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Chuck Carlson
Donna Nespoli
Kirk Huffstater
Nick Komar
Mike Freiburg
George Cresswell
Robert McNab
Gary Koehn
Margie Joy
Su Snyder
Maureen Blackford
Al Guarente
Peter Wilkinson
Bryan Guarente
Thomas Hall

Answer: Double-crested Cormorant

Monday, August 23, 2010

Quiz #362 (2010-3-07) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

The quiz bird flew by me while I was in a boat in Perdido Bay, AL (at Orange Beach), 9 August 2010, while I was working on post-spill efforts -- specifically, monitoring sea-grass beds. I had been photographing Sandwich Terns and grabbed one picture of the bird as it flew by me, never putting a binocular on the bird. When I got the pictures home to NJ, I noticed the bird's bill -- no yellow. Hmm. Then I noticed the depth of the bill. Hmm. That's odd, it almost makes it look like a small gull. Hmm.

Medium-sized tern ID is difficult, and made more difficult for many by the fact that there are very few places where one can see a lot of all of the species. In the interior, one is usually left with only Common and Forster's as regular options. In coastal New England, one adds Arctic and Roseate, but Forster's drops out. In New Jersey, Forster's and Common both breed in large numbers, with Gull-billed in small numbers, but Arctic and Roseate are rare. In the West, Common and Forster's are the only game in town, really. In the far north, Arctic and Common hold a near monopoly except in parts of coastal Alaska, where Aleutian is an option. The Gulf coast sports Gull-billed, Forster's, and Common (at appropriate seasons), but few (if any) of the others. South Florida may have the best medium-sized tern diversity, with four regular species.

All of these species sport black bills at one or more seasons and ageing the bird might help us winnow the possibilities. Typical of first-cycle terns, our bird has something of a secondary bar (the left wing's secondaries are dark-centered; we cannot see the top side of the right wing secondaries, so cannot accurately assess their color) and the tail seems to have dark corners. With an age as a probable juvenile given, the facts that our bird seems to have palish legs and a pale bit in the middle of the bill might be explained (juvenile soft-part colors are often different from those of adults and can change rapidly from that when in the nest). Our bird's apparent face mask sets it apart from Aleutian, Arctic, and Common, all of which sport some black on the crown. The extent of black onto the nape should enable us to eliminate Forster's from consideration at this age -- it can't be molting into or out of a full black crown at that age. Roseate and Arctic don't show so much dark on the underside of the wingtips and also sport rather dainty bills. In fact, we don't really need to look at much else other than the bill, because, by itself, it identifies this Gull-billed Tern.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Common Tern - 4
Forster's Tern - 2

Congratulations to the 9 of 15 getting the quiz correct:
Chuck Carlson
George Cresswell
Su Snyder
Margie Joy
Al Guarente
Kirk Huffstater
Peter Wilkinson
Marcel Such
Robert McNab

Answer: Gull-billed Tern

Monday, August 16, 2010

Quiz #361 (2010-3-06) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

All respondents got this week's quiz birds to the right genus, but none got the correct answer; somewhat disappointing. Our birds were obviously Plegadis ibis and those dark eyes and dark legs are key characters pointing to Glossy Ibis, which was the species promulgated by the majority of respondents. However, those characters also match White-faced Ibis, at least at some times.

Both of the birds sport anomalous patches of white on the neck and/or head, a feature at odds with both submitted IDs. At least, of identification of birds older than a few months. Yes, the oddly-patterned bills and the white patches on the necks support the contention by many respondents that these are juvenile ibis. Adding more certainty to that age assumption are the fresh, unworn, and even-aged flight feathers. Even though multiple folks noted this feature in our quiz, the age of our quiz birds seemed not to cause much in the way of caution in respondents. There was something of a geographic bias in responses, with all easterners (those living east of the Mississippi River) going for Glossy Ibis and the only votes for White-faced coming from westerners. Interesting to me, multiple respondents provided both species in their answers.

As noted in most (if not all) field guides to "North American" birds, juvenile dark ibis are indistinguishable. While there may be some characters that may suggest one or the other of the two species, as far as I'm aware (and I've looked at a LOT of juvenile ibis), there are no certain separators of the two, thus the correct answer, and one that I hope would be practiced in the field, is "Plegadis sp."

I took this picture of two juvenile dark ibis in July in some U.S. state in which I've lived at that time of year. Of course, that is a considerable number of places, and includes the following states (listed alphabetically): CA, CO, CT, GA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, and OH. White-faced Ibis breeds in two of those, Glossy in four (CT?), and neither in three. One can see the dilemna. If I took this picture in Michigan or Ohio, where both species are rarities, how would I back up any specific ID to the state's records committee? As I have seen breeding-season individuals of one species in two states in which the other species breeds, but which the first is not known to breed and in which the non-breeding species is a rarity, again, how do I back up any ID? Do I let them go in CO and NJ as simply the locally-breeding species, when I have no solid evidence of such, other than location? Why do that? Finally, how do I rule out the possibility of a hybrid, of which I've seen a fair few in CO, a state just south of Wyoming in which both species have bred or do breed?

Birding is more than simply slapping a label onto any given target. At least, I want it to be. That name should not be the end-all, be-all of birding, but simply a way to organize the chaos that is inherent in all biology. It is incumbent upon all of us, I think, to refrain from identifying something definitively, if there is no reason for that definitiveness. We can learn so much more, if our minds remain open to new things, novel theses, rather than simply slapping a name on an unidentifiable bird and moving on to the next. We should not be afraid to let a bird go unidentified.

Okay, I'm done with the philosophizing, let's check out the next quiz!

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Glossy Ibis - 13
White-faced Ibis - 4

All 14 answers submitted were considered incorrect.

Answer: Plegadis sp.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Quiz #360 (2010-3-05) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

Steve Mlodinow, Steve's girlfriend (sorry, my old mind has forgotten her name), Larry Semo, and I were birding the very flooded Tamarack Ranch SWA, Logan Co., CO, on 19 June 2010 when Steve's girlfriend noted a high-flying raptor circling overhead. Due to the height, intervening trees, and the plumage state of the bird, we had a bit of trouble identifying it immediately, but we eventually all agreed that it was....

Ah, I get ahead of myself.

Raptors soaring lazily overhead are usually considerably easier to ID than are raptors screaming by partially tucked. But, this week's lazily soaring raptor caused our respondents fits, as illustrated by the fact that the correct answer was not the most frequent answer provided - a rare occurrence in the Mr. Bill Mystery Quiz. Our bird's plumage, well, let's just say that it's seen better days. With the date given, things get a bit easier, as a ragged bird at that time of year is almost certainly a first-cycle bird (right around one year old), but the date was not provided for the quiz, so we'll have to go on without that datum.

The dark flight feathers, white underwings, mostly-white body, and black wrist mark leave few options, with all the best ones provided as answers this week: Osprey, Swainson's Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. While Prairie Falcon is variable as to its underwing pattern, but they also show at least dark axillars and it and Gyrfalcon never show a distinct dark patch on the greater primary coverts on the underwing. White-tailed Hawk is somewhat of a match for parts of our bird, but as the outer pair of rectrices on both sides of the tail are complete and there is no sign of the distinct black subterminal band typical of adults of that species, adult White-tailed is eliminated; juveniles would never be so pale.

Our bird's 6th primary (p6; count 5 primaries in from the outermost) is considerably and noticeably shorter than is p7, creating a very pointed look to the wingtip for a buteo, so Short-tailed Hawk is ruled out. Osprey sports a wrist patch, not just a comma, with the length of all the greater primary coverts on the underwing being dark, not sporting a terminal bar. Additionally, Osprey does not exhibit the dark of the face extending down to the shoulder and onto the throat as does our quiz bird. Thus, by the process of elimination, our quiz bird is a Swainson's Hawk. Colorado plays host to, well, hosts of such birds in summer, and birders with little experience with them in the field often believe that they're other species, because they just don't look like the pictures in the books! But, our quiz bird is identifiable as a Swainson's Hawk by the various features presented above: dark remiges contrasting with pale wing linings, wrist comma, no carpal bar, pointed wingtip, dark extending from auriculars to sides of throat, and pale tail with vague darker bands.

This week's quiz picture was the fourth consecutive one from northeast Colorado on 19 June, illustrating quite nicely how easy it is to take quiz pictures! With the wreckage caused by this quiz, Tyler Bell, Chuck Carlson, and Joel Such are the only players remaining with perfect scores after five quizzes.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Short-tailed Hawk - 2
Osprey - 8
Prairie Falcon - 1
White-tailed Hawk - 1

Congratulations to the 6 of 18 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Chuck Carlson
Margaret Smith
Margie Joy
Jim Beatty
Joel Such

Answer: Swainson's Hawk

Monday, August 2, 2010

Quiz #359 (2010-3-04) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

Wow, that rufous shoulder is quite distinct! Of course, that rufous is really near the wrist, but hey, who's keeping score? Oh, I am.

That extensive rufous on the wing on a small bird (note comparison to leaf size) really rules out most ABA-area passerines, leaving a short and eclectic solution set: Great Kiskadee; Canyon Wren; Dusky Thrush; Rufous-backed Robin (Thrush); Brown Thrasher; Bachman's, Rufous-winged, American Tree, Black-chinned, Henslow's, Seaside, Fox, Song, and Swamp sparrows; McCown's and Lapland longspurs; Rustic Bunting; Dickcissel; and Red-winged Blackbird. The long pale superciliary, gray crown and nape, black-streaked back, and brown rump and tail eliminate most of the above. Finally, the placement of the rufous (lesser and median coverts, but not greater coverts or remiges) leaves us only one option.

I took this photo of a territorial male Dickcissel near Jumbo Res., Sedgwick Co., CO, on 19 June 2010. I provide, below, another view of the beastie to confirm the ID for any doubting Thomases (and I'm not cracking wise on Mr. Hall, who got the right ID).


Incorrect species provided as answers:
Dusky Thrush - 1

Congratulations to the 15 of 16 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Chuck Carlson
Kyle Huffstater
Su Snyder
Bryan Guarente
Joel Such
Kirk Huffstater
Al Guarente
Marcel Such
Thomas Hall
Robert McNab
Margie Joy
Peter Wilkinson
Kevin Kerr
Joe Bens

Answer: Dickcissel

Monday, July 26, 2010

Quiz #358 (2010-3-03) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

A raptor perched on the ground right next to a railroad track is this week's quiz bird. We cannot see the bird's underparts, which probably threw off all of those getting the incorrect answer. But, we don't really need them, if we pay close attention to the field marks on the upperparts, and one very useful one on the underparts, that we can see.

Peter Wilkinson, who got the correct answer, wondered if I was trying to make quiz takers think of falcons, due to our bird's long wings, which extend beyond the tail tip. My answer is, "not consciously," but that was one feature that I was going to expouse upon. It does have long wings and the visible primaries are quite black, contrasting strongly with the rest of the wing that is visible. With a view from above of this bird in flight, we would see a fairly distinctly bicolored wing, dark hand and browner arm. Also note that the bird has at least two ages of secondaries, thus it is not a juvenile. The age is relevant, as the tail pattern means a bit more since most juvenile raptors that might be confused with our quiz bird have banded tails, but don't as adults.

The large falcons generally have tapered tails inconsistent with the quiz bird's. The deck feathers (yes, Peter, the raptor community on this side of the Pond does use the term) -- the central rectrices -- are broad and rounded on our bird, another feature at least somewhat inconsistent with a falcon ID. The strong pale fringes to all of the upperparts feathers should rule out all of the kites that might be considered.

With the above, we'll probably have to look among the buteos for a solution. With that, the face pattern becomes quite critical. Only two buteos typically show such well demarcated white foreheads and chin/throat: Short-tailed and Swainson's. Our bird is really too patterned above for Short-tailed and, despite the species' namesake, the short wings still don't protrude beyond the tail tip. Additionally, raise your hands all who have actually seen a perched Short-tailed Hawk! I haven't, though, of course, they do partake of that activity. I took this picture of an adult Swainson's Hawk along Hwy 138 in Logan Co., CO, on 19 June 2010.

One respondent neglected the possessive aspect of the species' name, so the answer was precluded from being correct for the competition. Three pictures into the new quarter, there are seven tied at the head of the class with perfect scores.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Short-tailed Hawk - 2
Mississippi Kite - 1
Ferruginous Hawk - 1
Gyrfalcon - 1

Congratulations to the 16 of 21 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Chuck Carlson
Claire Mix
Margaret Smith
Thomas Hall
Robert McNab
Kevin Kerr
Gary Koehn
Kirk Huffstater
Peter Wilkinson
Chris Warren
Joel Such
Su Snyder
Kyle Huffstater
Bryan Guarente
Joe Bens

Answer: Swainson's Hawk

Monday, July 12, 2010

Quiz #357 (2010-3-02) Solution


Click on picture(s) for a larger view.

Answer by Tony Leukering

Almost all respondents got our quiz bird to the genus Icterus, the orioles. The strongly bicolored (black maxilla, blue mandible) bill is the single best clue to get there, once one rules out the Passerina buntings (including Blue Grosbeak). That bill color also helps us eliminate one oriole option, Altamira, but that species doesn't have a yellowish or greenish plumage at all, so it's out the door, anyway.

The overall impression of the bird's bright coloration is that of a yellow/green/orange, but with a distinctly dark back and two whitish wing bars. These features rule out four of the ten ABA-area orioles, leaving Orchard, Hooded, Streak-backed, Bullock's, Audubon's, Baltimore, and Scott's.

At this point, ageing the wee beastie might assist with identification, so let's tackle that. One of the more notable aspects of the quiz bird's plumage is the wear that is so evident on the head (the crown is mostly gray!) and in the wings: they're really brown and with the wingbars in fairly sad shape. Unless the picture was taken in late summer, this amount of wear would suggest an immature bird in its second calendar year. Looking closely at the greater coverts, we can see that at least some of the outer ones have centers noticeably darker than the paler and browner inner coverts, another good clue to immaturity. Finally, the bird's tail provides a similar clue, as the outermost rectrix on each side is more rounded, grayer, and sports an obvious and unworn white fringe to the tip than are the rest of the rectrices. Checking into Pyle (1997), we find that the pre-formative molt (called therein the first pre-basic; but terminology of these molts changed after the publication of the book, so...) in this species (I won't say, yet, what that species is) is eccentric, with an odd and variable variety of flight feathers replaced. That certainly matches our bird, so we can safely presume that this is a first-cycle female, as a similarly-aged male of the various orioles still in contention would have some male-like aspect (specifically, black on the throat) in late spring/early summer -- and the picture has to have been taken at this time from the plumage's appearance.

Our bird's back can help us to eliminate another few species, Streak-backed, Baltimore, and Scott's, as, if anything, it is barred, not streaked. Studying the face allows us to rule out Bullock's, as the brightest plumage there is behind the auriculars, not in the front of the face as it should be on Bullock's. Another character assists with that elimination: the pale edges of the secondaries. On Bullock's, these edges extend all the way to the greater coverts, whereas our bird's edges do not. There is a gap similar to that that allows quick separation of Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hutton's Vireo, though not quite as obvious as on the kinglet. Quite fortuitously, this feature also eliminates Hooded Oriole, leaving us with the correct ID.

I took this picture of an immature female Orchard Oriole at Jumbo Res., Logan Co., CO, on 19 June 2010. Though virtually every respondent that got down to the Orchard:Hooded dichotomy got the correct species, few of those told me how they got there, so I don't know what features that most used to get the correct answer. I still think that most birders greatly underappreciate how difficult females of these two species can be to identify. Success in the endeavor requires careful scrutiny of a number of features, some of which can be difficult to assess correctly. Maybe I'll run a string of pictures of the two species for the next few quizzes, just to see how things go! Maybe not.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
"Yellow finch" - 1
Scott's Oriole - 1
Hooded Oriole - 1
Baltimore Oriole - 1
Bay-breasted Warbler - 1

Congratulations to the 18 of 23 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Chuck Carlson
Nick Komar
Louie Toth
Joel Such
Richard Jeffers
Kirk Huffstater
Kyle Huffstater
George Cresswell
Al Guarente
Peter Wilkinson
Chris Warren
Joe Bens
Marcel Such
Margie Joy
Thomas Hall
Margaret Smith
Su Snyder

Answer: Orchard Oriole

Monday, July 5, 2010

Quiz #356 (2010-3-01) Solution


Click on picture(s) for a larger view.

Answer by Tony Leukering

Well, after the first quiz of the third quarter, there are 24 tied for first place! Of course, with a bird with rufous upperparts (with black markings) and blue wings (with white markings), there really aren't a lot of options on the ol' ABA list. But, how would folks have done had I provided the quiz that I first thought to provide -- just the wing?

I went with this version for one main reason (other than the simple ease of not having to crop the picture, etc.): reinforcing one of the main themes behind my tenure as Mr. Bill. That theme is knowing the common birds cold. American Kestrel is, for most North American birders, a common, nearly-every-day species, the kind that we learn to recognize immediately and then pay little overt attention to -- at least as far as the details of plumage.

Yes, the seemingly ever-expanding availability of raptor-ID field guides treat this species quite well but, again, how many of us actually read the accounts of such common and widespread species? How many know that one can sex American Kestrels (from above and below) solely on the color of the subterminal spots on the remiges? How many know that ageing American Kestrels in the field is difficult (for males) to very difficult (for females)?

Males always have blue wings and always have a very wide black subterminal tail band, both characters differing from those of all females. But, had our quiz bird's left wing been just a shade more elevated, we might not have been able to determine the wing's color and our view of the tail is already nearly edge-on, making for some uncertainty in assessing its features. But, those whitish (blue-white to gray-white) subterminal spots on the primaries and secondaries would tell us that our quiz bird is a male, whether we can see the wing color or not, as females have buffy spots.

Immature male American Kestrels usually show more black markings on the back and more black spots on the chest and sides than do adults. However, these features are more-than-variable enough to preclude using them to age any given individual. Our bird's back is suggestive (at least, to me) of a younger bird, but....

I took this picture of a male American Kestrel in Conejos Co., CO, on 17 June 2010.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
none

Congratulations to the 24 of 24 getting the quiz correct:
Louie Toth
Al Guarente
Marcel Such
Robert McNab
Kevin Kerr
Tyler Bell
Chuck Carlson
Margie Joy
Claire Mix
William Velmala
Thomas Hall
Aaron Brees
George Cresswell
Su Snyder
Nick Komar
Gary Koehn
Richard Jeffers
Peter Wilkinson
Barbara Deneen
Brandon Percival
Bryan Guarente
Chris Warren
Joel Such
Joe Bens

Answer: American Kestrel

Monday, June 28, 2010

Quiz #355 (2010-2-13) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

The first respondent and the final three respondents were the only ones getting this week's tough quiz correct and a lot of folks stayed home. I don't blame 'em, as my first reaction to this picture was also wrong.

The quiz bird presents an odd combination of rufous upperparts and dark gray underparts, and Bewick's Wren seems an eminently reasonable choice for the ID with such coloration. Unfortunately, as I found when I first perused the pic, that reasonable option is not correct, as Bewick's Wrens, especially the strongly rufous forms, sport rufous flanks and, usually, some indication of dark barring on the primaries. With that option eliminated, our bird just about has to be a sparrow of some sort; there just are not a lot of ABA-area options for rufous-and-gray passerines. With gray underparts, we might head to the juncoes, but the richly rufous wings rule out all members of that genus. The lack of streaking underneath eliminates another couple options in the Fox Sparrow group. Black-chinned Sparrow has a streaked back and strongly fringed wing coverts, so that one is ruled out.

We are left with only one option, a species that, as soon as I saw this individual (and I also photographed this individual, so really have no excuse for guessing wrong on the picture), the species supplanted Le Conte's as my favorite sparrow species. Derek Hill photographed this adult Five-striped Sparrow at California Gulch, AZ, in August 2006. I have provided, below, another view of the same bird.

In a most interesting quarter, Joel Such ran away with top honors by being the only respondent to record a perfect score. Congrats, Joel! Joel's brother, Marcel, just edged out Chris Warren for second place, though they both scored 11 of 13 correct.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Bewick's Wren - 5
House Sparrow - 1
Dark-eyed Junco - 2
Yellow-eyed Junco - 1

Congratulations to the 4 of 13 getting the quiz correct:
Thomas Hall
Tyler Bell
Marcel Such
Joel Such

Answer: Five-striped Sparrow

Monday, June 21, 2010

Quiz #354 (2010-2-12) Solution


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Answer by Tony Leukering

Michael O'Brien provided this week's quiz picture from his VENT chicken tour this April; he thought that it might cause some problems. He took the picture near Campo, Baca Co., CO.

Most respondents went with the sparrows, with one waiting and waiting for the bird to turn around, to no avail. The Carpodacus finches can be quickly ruled out by our bird's short primary projection; the finches all have long primary projection with numerous primaries extending beyond the tertials (what primary projection there is is enough to rule out Lark Bunting). Also, as Chuck Carlson noted, the lack of any white in the center of the crown should do the job of eliminating the "grassland" sparrows that might have caused confusion (Savannah, Grasshopper, Baird's). The tail length and individual rectrix shapes also do that job for all and the primary projection rules out Savannah. After all the above, the heavy flank streaking extending onto the lateral undertail coverts leaves us with just three options: Vesper, Song, and Lincoln's sparrows. The last of these is eliminated by that species having blackish flank streaking overlaid on buffy feathers. Since the bird seems to entirely lack white in the tail, the answer should be Song Sparrow.

As I am not a particular fan of ID by elimination, let's check other features. The most noticeable on a bird that is nearly entirely of the same color tone, is that block of dark median coverts with strong white tips. This is not a feature of Song Sparrow, which has strong rufous or warm brown fringes such that the median coverts are of the same color tone as the rest of the wing, with thin whitish tips. Vesper Sparrow, however, matches that characteristic precisely and while our eyes are captivated by that distinct dark panel, we might notice the suggestion of rufous lesser coverts. Though Vesper Sparrow sports such, that feature is not necessary in our ID process, as the median coverts are so distinctive for the species. But, what about the white outer rectrices that are also typical of Vesper Sparrow? Well, as noted by Margie Joy, when the rectrices are stacked like this and as our view is from above, the white outers are hidden by dark inners, though we can see just the very edge of the white on the outermost rectrix on the bird's left side.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Purple Finch - 1
Song Sparrow - 2
Savannah Sparrow - 3
Cassin's Finch - 1
Lincoln's Sparrow - 1

Congratulations to the 8 of 16 getting the quiz correct:
Robert McNab
Tyler Bell
Margie Joy
Joel Such
Chuck Carlson
Marcel Such
George Cresswell
Chris Warren

Answer: Vesper Sparrow

Monday, June 14, 2010

Quiz #353 (2010-2-11) Solution


Click on picture(s) for a larger view.
No ABA-area rarity is present in this picture.

Answer by Tony Leukering

I put this week's quiz picture up to talk about a specific field mark, primary coverts, that provide a great clue in separating a couple of similar species. The best plans of mice and men -- I wasn't counting on most of the incorrect answers being for an altogether different species. And now, I have to revamp the answer that I had written in my head.

All respondents got to the smaller gulls, probably due to the strong pattern of black and white on the upperparts, with the dark coloration in a vague 'W' pattern ('twould have been an 'M' pattern if the bird were heading away from us). With the red-phosphor caveat provided with the quiz picture, we don't have to worry about things like Gray-headed Gull, leaving us with just Bonaparte's and Black-headed gulls and Black-legged Kittiwake.

The field mark I had intended discussing, and still shall, is the color of the greater primary coverts. Though all birds have greater primary coverts (and, by extension, lesser primary coverts), there aren't that many groups for which the lessers are particularly visible in the field, so we tend to shorten things to simply primary coverts (covs). But, gulls are one of those groups that sport obvious lesser primary covs, hence the need for the modifier, 'greater.' This tract of feathers can be quite useful in separating immatures of Bonaparte's and Black-headed gulls, which can otherwise be quite tricky. Bonaparte's Gull sports a mix of black and white in those feathers, with the black much the more abundant on the outers and white more noticeable on the inners. By contrast, Black-headed immatures show nearly all-white greater primary covs.

While a number of respondents selected Black-legged Kittiwake as their answer, juveniles and immatures of that species have the entire leading edge of the hand (the wing from the wrist to tip) black or blackish, rather than the mix of black and white so obvious on our quiz bird. Particularly, note that the quiz bird's lesser primary covs are nearly entirely white, which would be a radical departure for a kittiwake. Also note that our bird's alula and outermost primary (p10) are also a mix of black and white, two feathers that are all black on young Black-legged Kittiwakes.

I photographed this immature Bonaparte's Gull at Villas, Cape May Co., NJ, on 22 April 2010. At this date, even immature Black-headed Gulls ought to be showing at least a hint of the adult bill color.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Black-legged Kittiwake - 4
Black-headed Gull - 1

Congratulations to the 11 of 16 getting the quiz correct:
Robert McNab
Al Guarente
Thomas Hall
Kevin Kerr
George Cresswell
Su Snyder
Chris Warren
Peter Wilkinson
Bryan Guarente
Joel Such
Marcel Such

Answer: Bonaparte's Gull

Monday, June 7, 2010

Quiz #352 (2010-2-10) Solution


Click on picture(s) for a larger view.
The picture was taken in New Jersey.

Answer by Tony Leukering

For the second week in a row, we have a poor, misunderstood adult Red-tailed Hawk being mobbed by some annoying, aggressive passerine! Perhaps interesting to you is that the individual hawk may very well be the same bird in the two quizzes! That is because this is one of the resident pair at the Villas WMA, Cape May Co., NJ, (here in early May 2010) and it rarely is able to make a pass over the area without attracting attention from those vicious passerines. Poor thing.

I know that I may have jumped the gun on identifying one of the birds in the quiz, but, hey, that's my prerogative as quizmeister. We can rule out Ferruginous Hawk, many of which can show at least something of a reddish tail, by the fact that our quiz bird lacks any obvious bit of wing panel (window), a feature that Ferruginous always shows and which only juvenile Red-tailed Hawks do.

The black bird may cause more problems. However, this quiz had something of a different focus than most others that I've conducted, as it was intended as a test of retention. That is, I wanted to see whether the regular respondents would remember the details of the solution for the last time that I ran a quiz crow. (Yes, we can rule out Common Raven by the bird's lack of a wedge-shaped tail and by its too-round wings. We can also rule out Northwestern and Tamaulipas crows by the caveat in red, above.)

Back in June 2009, I ran Mr. Bill Mystery Quiz #305. Many of the regulars that provided explanation of how they got to their answer this week noted that previous quiz. Unfortunately, some respondents did not, but most of those still got the this week's quiz correct. After perusing that previous quiz, one can see that this week's crow must be an American Crow, due to the obvious six fingers.

Incorrect species provided as answers:
Great Blue Heron - 1
Fish Crow - 3

Congratulations to the 12 of 15 getting the quiz correct:
Tyler Bell
Robert McNab
Claire Mix
Kevin Kerr
Nick Komar
Al Guarente
Joel Such
Margie Joy
Aaron Brees
Peter Wilkinson
Bryan Guarente
Chris Warren

Answer: Red-tailed Hawk, American Crow