March 14, 2009
(Note - click on the images to see a full size photo)
Spring is fast approaching and with it come the annual bonanza of bird migration. It gives us the chance to see most of the migrants of the eastern 1/2 of North America in our local hotspots and many in our yard.The spring birds are in the breeding (alternate) plumage and thus most easily identified. As I now have most of them photographed, I thought I would give the beginning birders a primer on the most common birds to be seen.
This is the second bulletin for spring migrant ID help. this one deals with the non-warbler migrant passerines.
The first group of birds belong to the family Tyrannidae or Tyrant Flycatchers. They are are New World family of birds and simply referred to as flycatchers. They sit quietly on a branch or wire and look around for an inscet flying by. Then they fly out to catch it and return to the perch. Any bird doing this is usually a flycatcher and this can narrow your ID problem to this family. However, some warblers also flycatch.The sexes are similar except where noted.
The larger members of this family are the kingbirds and related species. There are 2 such birds for the list.
Eastern Kingbird is a handsome bird who appears to be wearing formal attire with a dark gray head and back and white underparts. Look fir the white tip on the tail for confirmation of the ID.
The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is a beautiful bird with pearl colored head and body dark wings and salmon flanks. The tail is very long with the male being several inches longer than the female. Unmistakable.
The Great Crested Flycatcher is of the genus myiarchus. They all have brown and rufous back and wings, gray throat and yellow belly. This bird is large (8-9") and the only member of this genus in eastern North America.
The Least Flycatcher is of the genus empidonax (empid) of which there are several in the east. In general, they can only be IDed by voice, and usually during migration they are silent. An empid has both an eye-ring and wing-bars. Compare with the next 2 birds. the Least Flycatcher is perhaps the most common empid during spring migration and the grayest. I usually can't positively ID a bird like this without an expert's assistance.
The Eastern Wood-Pewee has wing-bars but no eye-ring and thus can be confidently IDed. It often has a yellowish tint to the breast.
The Eastern Phoebe has neither eye-ring nor wing-bars and can also be positively IDed. It is the only winter resident flycatcher in much of this area.
The Olive-sided Flycatcher has the dark vest on the sides of the chest. His voice is distinctive and is known by 'Quick - three beers'. It is an uncommon spring migrant in this area.
This is the beautiful male Vermilion Flycatcher. The bright red body with brown back, wings and tail is distinctive. The only bird it might be confused with is the male Scarlet Tanager, but the tanager has black wings and tail and red back. the female is gray with white underparts and streaked flanks. there is some pink under the tail. This bird is most likely to be found at Brazos Bend State Park southwest of Houston.
The vireos are a family of birds the same size as warblers and are often confused, as many of them also have some yellow. The bills of vireos are thicker and the upper mandible is hooked at the end. Six members of this family occur during spring migration in this area. The sexes are similar in all these vireos.
Three vireos have greenish backs and wing bars.
The White-eyed Vireo is in my experience, the most common vireo seen during migration. The yellow spectacles, yellow flanks, white throat, and wing bars make this ID. The white eye is not usually seen in the field and isn't needed to ID this species.
The Yellow-throated Vireo is similar to the above bird but has an extensive yellow throat and breast. it also has the yellow spectacles. It is uncommon in migration.
The Blue-headed Vireo was formerly called Solitary Vireo until split into 3 species about a decade ago. It has green back, yellow flanks, 2 wing bars and blue gray head with white spectales. This is perhaps the 3rd most common vireo seen in spring and is an easy ID.
The other three vireos have brown/olive backs and no wing-bars.
The most common of this group is the Red-eyed Vireo.It has a white eye stripe with a black line above the white. The breast is all gray and the back olive. It is the second most common vireo encountered during spring migration. The Tennessee Warbler may be confused with this bird, but the warbler has a gray back and different shaped bill. The red eye is not usually seen in the field.
The Philadelphia Vireo has a black line through the eye with white above and yellow tinged breast. It is an uncommon spring migrant.
The Warbling Vireo is plain brown and just has the white above the eye. It has no yellow on the throat. Again, it is an uncommon bird here in the spring. It is often difficult to separate this bird form the Philadelphia Vireo in the field as they are moving about in the trees. You really need to see that there is no black in front of the eye.
The Kinglets are tiny (3.5-4") active birds that have a yellowish wash on their wings and may be confused with warblers (5.5"). They flit their wings constantly as this helps with the ID of these tiny birds. The sexes are similar. They are winter residents, but a few may linger and be seen in migration.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is an olive-gray bird with 2 wing-bars and yellow wash on the wings. ID him by the broken eye-ring.
The Golden-crowned Kinglet is much less common than the other kinglet. it is similar except it has a prominent white stripe above the eye, rather than th eye-ring
The swallows are all migrants here. They take insects on the wing, But are best seen and easy to ID when perched, usually on telephone wires. A great place to see them is at Anahuac NWR and along FM 1985 from Anahuac to High Island.
The Barn Swallow is actually the only USA swallow with a swallow (forked) tail. It is blue above with a rusty throat. the male (below left) has a brown breast and belly. The female is lighter below.
These 2 species are the same genus and almost identical. They have blue backs and wings, square tails, rusty throats. The Cave Swallow (left below) has a rufous forehead. The Cliff Swallow (below right) has a white forehead.
The Tree Swallow is snow white below. The mlae is glossy blue above. the female in blue/brown above. here are the pair of them together. The male is behind.
The Purple Martin is the largest swallow. The male (below left) is entirely glossy purple . The female (below right) has a gray breast.
The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is brown above with brown throat.
The only swallow I don't have a photo yet is the Bank Swallow. It is similar to the Northern Rough-winged Swallow above, but it had a brown band across the breast.
The next group include the Thrushes and Thrashers, as some members of each are brown with spotted breasts and need to be differentiated from each other. Fortunately for us the sexes are similar in all these birds except for 1 species. Most thrashers have wing-bars and no thrushes do.
There are 2 thrushes with reddish breasts. They are unique and easy to ID.
The Eastern Bluebird has a blue back, reddish-brown breast and white undertail. The male is on the right in the photo. The female is similar but the colors are muted. Again, no ID problem.
The other 5 thrushes are brown on the back with light breasts and some spots.
The Hermit Thrush is a winter resident but some persist into April. They have a rufous tail and wing edges. The spots are lighter than the Wood Thrush.
The Veery is entirely rufous from head to tail. there is minimal spotting on the breast.
The Swainson's Thrush is uniformly gray-brown above and spotted below. It is differentiated from the Gray-cheeked Thrush by the prominent white eye-ring. An easy way I remember these 2 birds is R-S (eyeRing - Swainson's)
The Gray-cheeked Thrush is also gray-brown above and spotted below. It has gray cheeks, but more importantly no eye-ring.
There are 3 thrashers in this area. One is brown with spots and the other 2 are gray. Generally they have longer, slightly curved bills compared to thrushes.
The Brown Thrasher has a rufous head, back and tail with streaks, not spots on the breast, 2 white wing-bars and a bright yellow eye.It is differentiated from the thrushes by the wing bars.
The Northern Mockingbird is all gray with 2 white wing bars and a yellow eye. It is easily identified. It also happens to be the state bird of Texas and several other states, as it is such a great singer. It is a permanent resident and found everywhere.
The migrant Gray Catbird is all gray with a black cap, no wing bars and rusty undertail feathers. Another easy ID. It really does sound like a cat meowing.
I am going to combine the cardinals, finches and tanagers in this ID primer and discuss them by color, like I did with the warblers.
There are 2 species in which the males have yellow breasts +/- yellow bodies.
The American Goldfinch is small bird (5") and is a winter resident here. It may still be seen during spring migration. The male (below left) is bright yellow with black cap on head black wings and tail and prominent white wing bars. The femlae is gray-brown but has the black wings with white wing bars. They usually travel in flocks and are a simple ID.
The male Dickcissel looks like a small Meadowlark, with a brown back, yellow breast and black bib. It has rufous patches on the wing that are an important ID mark. The female lacks the black bib.
The next 2 birds that are almost entirely blue. These are unique and need to be distinguished from each other. The only other passerines that are quite blue are the large Blue Jay that has a crest and the Eastern Bluebird that has a brick red breast. The 2 blue warblers have quite a bit of black on them.
The male Indigo Bunting (below left) is entirely blue. No other bird is this color. The molting 1st year male (below right) has mottled blue and brown feathers. The female (2nd below left) is brown and lighter below with some faint streaking on the breast and no obvious wing bars. She is a difficult bird to differentiate from the female Blue Grosbeak below, although smaller 5.5" vs 7"
The male Blue Grosbeak (below left) is larger than the Indigo Bunting and a darker blue. However, it has 2 obvious tan wing bars. The female is plain brown, but has wing bars and unstreaked breast. For me this is a difficult ID in the field from the female Indigo Bunting unless the feamles are with males in a group which they often are for both these species.
There are 4 birds in this group that have red breasts or are all red. These are the males of the species. It is the females that cause ID problems. There are 2 thrushes whose breasts are reddish. They were discussed above.
The first of this group is the permanent resident Northen Cardinal. The male (below left) is red with a bushy crest, reddish bill and black face. The female (below right) is a warm brown, but has red tinges on the crst and wings along with the reddish bill and black face. Neither should be an ID problem as they are so common and can be seen everywhere. In the summer, you might find a cardinal with a black bill. These are the juveniles.
The male Summer Tanager is all red with a large pale bill. there is no crest and no black on the face. He is the only totally red bird.
The female Summer Tanager is yellow below and olive above. The wings are the same color as the body. Compare with the female Scarlet Tanager below in which the wings are darker than the body color.
Sometimes you will see a bird that is 1/2 red and 1/2 green or olive. This is a molting male Summer Tanager.
The male Scarlet Tanager is a stunning bird with bright red head and body with black wings and tail. There are no wing bars.
The female Scarlet Tanager has a dark yellow-green head and body. the wings are considerably darker then the breast color. the bill is smaller then the female Summer Tanager.
The male Painted Bunting is a small (5") finch with a red breast, blue head and green back. It is gaudy and unmistakable and a favorite of all birders.
The female Painted Bunting (PABU) is a small all greenish finch with a dark bill. The only bird it might be confused with is the female Scarlet Tanager. The tanager is 50% larger and has a light colored bill. If you see a similar bird that is blue-green on the back rather than green, it is the 1st year male PABU.
The last 2 birds in this group show some red on throat and/or head in the males.
The beautiful male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (below left) is a uniquley colored bird with black head and back, white wing patches and breast and pink throat. The female (below right) is brown above, white below with brown streaks and striped face. Note the large bill.
The House Finch is a permanent resident in all the USA. The male looks like a streaked sparrow with a red-orange face and upper chest. The female can be a difficult ID problem, but the face is plain compared to the female purple finch which has a dark face and is unlikely to be seen during this time of year. Again, they forage in flocks, so the association with the males makes the ID easier.
The icterid family includes blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds and orioles. 3 members of this family are spring migrants. The males of all 3 are easy to ID. The female orioles are more problematic, but remember that they have wing bars. The only confusion is with the female tanagers that do not have wing bars.
So here is the Baltimore Oriole. The male below left is bright orange with black head and wings with white wing bars. This is a straight forward ID. The female is orange-yellow with dark head and wings, but the white wing bars confirm the ID.
The male Orchard Oriole is a rich chocolate brown with black head and wings with wing bars. Again, no other bird is like it.
The female Orchard Oriole is yellow-green with dark wings. It also has wing bars and this distinguishes it from the female Scarlet Tanager.
This is a 1st year male Orchard Oriole. It is yellow-green with a black throat. It has the dark wings and wing bars. This plumage is often seen and many beginners don't know what it is. In fact, for a long time it was felt to be a different species!
The last migrant icterid is the Bobolink. The male is glossy black with a yellow patch on the back of his head. He has white wing patches and white rump. I don't have a photo of this bird as it is quite uncommon. I have seen it only twice in 18 years in the spring here.
I hope that you have found this non-warbler passerine ID discussion to be of benefit. I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations. I will add photos of the missing birds to the discussion when I get them.
Also, if you found this guide helpful, I would appreciate if you would join or make a donation to one of the following organizations, who help the birds with habitat preservation on the upper Texas coast and help us birders in so many ways. If you are already a member, join another or make a another donation. Thanks!
- Houston Audubon Society http://www.houstonaudubon.org/
- Gulf Coast Bird Observatory http://www.gcbo.org/
- Friends of Anahuac NWR http://www.friendsofanahuacnwr.org/
- Armand Bayou Nature Center http://www.abnc.org/
All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.
Happy birding and photography,
photos copyright 2009 David McDonald
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