Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Warblers are on the Move

To me it doesn't matter if it is the spring or the fall, I always get excited when warblers are migrating through Indiana. Luckily for me, I have been able to get out birding several times over the last few days and the warblers have not disappointed me. Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis is good during spring migration but is phenomenal during the fall. I find myself checking the radar every night to see if migration is strong and then trying to figure out how much time I will have to look for warblers at Eagle Creek the next morning. With migration being driven by the north winds that we have had this week, we have found around 20 species of warblers as well as several other migrants.

Magnolia Warbler - While very few of the warblers have been anywhere close to breeding colors, all of the Magnolias that we have seen have had very faint streaking.

Black-throated Green Warbler - Most of the individuals that we have seen of this species have  looked pretty good.

Blackburnian Warbler - There is nothing like seeing this species in the spring but its not too bad looking in the fall either.

Chestnut-sided Warbler - This species looks quite different in the fall without its chestnut side.

American Redstart (Male) - One of the very few warblers that we have seen this week that retains its breeding plumage.

American Redstart (Female) - This is what most of the redstarts we have seen this week look like.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Best Field Guides for Birds and Birding

1.  The Sibley Guide to Birds :

  • Pros:  Extremely detailed and accurate illustrations of every regularly occurring bird in North America.  More plumages of each species shown than any other general field guide.  All species shown in flight and accurate range maps.   
  • Cons:  It's large/heavy size makes it difficult to carry into the field.  There is no general information about each species like the other field guides.  Doesn't show many of the rare birds that have occurred in North America.

  • Pros:  Accurate illustrations of all species that have occurred in North America.  Well written descriptions of each bird.  Easy-to-use flip tabs to guide you to the group of birds you are looking for.  In-flight comparison pages for hawks, shorebirds, and waterfowl.  Small size makes it easy to carry into the field.  
  • Cons:  Limited amount of plumages shown for each species.  Plumages shown not as accurate to real life situations as the Sibley Guide to Birds.

  • Pros:  Uses photos instead of illustrations (a positive, if that's what you prefer).  Well written descriptions of each bird.  Good pointers on what field marks to look for when viewing a bird.  Covers all regularly occurring species in North America.
  • Cons:  Limited amount of plumages shown for each species.  Doesn't cover all of the vagrants that the National Geographic guide covers.  

  • Pros:  Uses photos instead of illustrations (a positive, if that's what you prefer).  More extensive use of photos shows birds in a range of positions and plumages.  
  • Cons:  Only covers eastern North America.  Very busy plates for each species make it difficult to understand differences in plumage.  Difficult to use when identifying birds in the field, due to the busy plates.

  • Pros:  Good pointers on what field marks to look for on each species.  Covers all the regularly occurring birds of North America.  Includes a checklist to keep your life list.  
  • Cons:  Illustrations not always the most accurate of the field guides.  Limited amount of plumages shown for each species.  Doesn't show most of the vagrants to North America.  

The more of these field guides that you use the more you will learn about identifying birds.  Each guide has different information that might better strike a cord with you!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Warbler Identification: Blackpoll vs. Bay-breasted Warblers

When worrying about fall warbler identification, most birders think about the Blackpoll vs. Bay-breasted challenge.  This is for good reason; these two species can be very difficult to identify, if you don't know what to look for.  I won't discuss the identification of the adults, as that is fairly straight forward.  The first fall birds are the real challenge.

What to Look For

Blackpoll Warbler
-yellow/orange feet
-distinct streaking on sides, breast, and flanks
-white undertail coverts
-cold, yellow coloration overall
-wing bars bold, but not usually as bold as Bay-breasted
-head and body coloration do not contrast

Blackpoll Warbler (immature)
First Fall Blackpoll Warbler
To see the photographer's photostream go to: 
Blackpoll Warbler
To see the photographer's photostream go to: 
Bay-breasted Warbler
-black feet
-buffy sides, usually showing a tinge of bay 
-streaking (if present) blurry and indistinct
-buffy to off-white undertail coverts
-greenish head contrasts with warmer coloration of chest, sides, and belly
Bay-breasted Warbler
To see the photographer's photostream go to: 
To see the photographer's photostream go to:
Now that wasn't too difficult, was it?  Most of the other warbler identification challenges are created by the sheer number of species of warblers that are possible.  With a little study, warbler identification will become much easier.

For a great warbler identification guide, buy the Peterson Field Guide to Warblers.  


Friday, August 24, 2012

Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area Birding

I headed down to Goose Pond on Tuesday to study/photograph shorebirds and to look for the Wood Storks that had been found there recently.  Unfortunately, when I arrived a few thunderstorms were moving through so I was not able to do much photography in the morning but it was the only time I saw the Wood Storks (which was a state bird for me)!  I spent the rest of the time birding around Goose Pond and Beehunter Marsh concentrating mostly on shorebirds.

Lesser Yellowlegs-many of these would feed close by allowing for some good photo opportunities 

Black-necked Stilt-this species has become one of the common birds at Goose Pond

Pectoral Sandpiper-this pec landed about 20 feet away, then realized I was there

This Sedge Wren was very cooperative and let me get within 10 feet.  

There were lots of spider webs around Beehunter Marsh.  With the morning light and a light dew it was
a beautiful scene.

One of the storms moving through the first morning I was there, although a little irritating, it was a pretty scene

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How to Identify Warblers in the Fall

It takes a different frame of mind to identify fall warblers than the shorebirds I have been posting so much about.  While shape is extremely important in shorebird identification it is much less so in warbler identification.  Plumage characteristics can identify almost all of the warblers; especially face pattern, which can identify practically all warblers.

Adult Cape May Warbler
The difficulty in identifying warblers is getting a good look at the birds.  Many times the only look you will get  will be a partial view, so knowing as many details of each species will be important.  For example, many warblers have tail patterns that are distinctive.  As the leaves start falling off the trees, getting good looks at the warblers becomes much easier and identification becomes much easier.

Another challenge that arises with warblers is learning the differences in plumage between the sexes and ages.  In most cases the juvenile females are the most dull while the adult males are the brightest individuals.  So the same species can vary from being bright and beautiful to dull and boring depending on age and sex.

Yellow-rumped Warbler-the most common warbler to migrate through the US

One helpful skill to pick up, that will help with finding and identifying warblers, is to learn and recognize the call notes of warblers.  Usually, before I see a warbler flock, I hear them.  Once you hear them you will be able to quickly find the flock.  While many of the call notes can be identified to species, just knowing that the chips you are hearing are warblers will be a big help.

I will go into some species comparisons on my next warbler identification post.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

White-rumped Sandpiper Identification Photos

I spent the past day and a half birding at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area.  Most of my time was spent watching shorebirds which resulted in 16 species of shorebirds.  Since a few of my recent posts have been about peep identification I thought these photos I took would be a good study.

On the left is a White-rumped Sandpiper in nonbreeding plumage.
Notice the long wings, noticeable white eyebrow, and overall grayish appearance.
Can you identify the bird on the right?

On the right is a White-rumped Sandpiper.  Can you identify the bird on the left?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bonaparte's vs Franklin's Gull: Answer

Last week, I posted a photo of a gull to help our readers learn how to identify Bonaparte's and Franklin's Gulls. The photo showed a bird in mid molt making the identification extremely tricky and it admittedly took me a long time in the field to figure out what this individual was. Here is the photo as a reminder of what we were looking at:

The Mystery Gull
The photo shows a gull with a with a thin black bill which is good for Bonaparte's Gull but it also has a partial  black hood which would tend to push us towards Franklin's Gull. When we start to look at the shape of this bird, we see that it appears thin and elegant. When you combine this with the red/pink legs, you should be able to come to the conclusion that this is a Bonaparte's Gull. A Franklin's Gull should always have black legs.

We hope everyone is enjoying our identification articles. Look for a fall warbler post from Eric coming soon!


Friday, August 17, 2012

How to Photograph Shorebirds: A Simple Tip

My simple tip to improve photographs of shorebirds is to get as low as you can.  If you can get down to eye-level the photographs will be more unique and create a connection between the viewer and the bird.  A side effect of getting lower, is that the background will also be more appealing in most cases.  Another positive is that when you are lower to the ground, or laying on the ground, shorebirds are more likely to approach you!

Compare the pictures below that I took at Eagle Creek Park of the same Least Sandpiper.

Juv. Least Sandpiper:  Even though I like how this photo turned out, it is not as dramatic as the
photos below.  Notice how the entire background is mud and the bird doesn't stand out from the background.

Juv. Least Sandpiper:  Notice how the Least Sandpiper pops out of the background; it's a much more dramatic
photo.  The background is also much nicer, with some greens, instead of just mud.

Juv. Least Sandpiper:  Just another example of getting low . . . 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Shorebird Identification: The Adult "short-winged" Peeps

The three species that will be discussed here are the Least, Semipalmated, and Western Sandpipers.  When in breeding plumage these three species are readily identifiable but when in nonbreeding plumage these species can be among the most challenging birds to identify.  Due to the differences in shape and size the Least is the most readily identifiable of the three.  In nonbreeding plumage the Semipalmated and Western look very similar.  But for those of us in the US we don't need to worry as much about the Semipalmated in nonbreeding plumage because they do not winter within the country.

Least Sandpiper

The plump, front-heavy body shape of the Least Sandpiper is important in it's identification at any season.  The yellow legs and short, slightly decurved bill can be used as a field mark throughout the year.  In breeding plumage, the adults are fairly evenly colored from the head and chest through the back to the tail.  Overall, it is the brightest plumaged peep.  The streaking on the chest is the densest on the Least Sandpiper as well.  

Adult Least Sandpiper.  Notice the overall dark plumage, fairly bright throughout, not concentrated in
specific areas like Western.  Bill:  short, slightly decurved, fine-tipped.  Shape:  large chested, plump overall

Nonbreeding Least Sandpiper:  Notice the yellow legs, slightly decurved bill, and plump body shape

Semipalmated vs. Western Sandpipers

By Shape:

The female Western Sandpipers can be identified easily in most situations due to their long, decurved bill.  However, the male Westerns have a shorter bill that overlaps the Semipalmated's bill length.  Even though the bill length isn't always the safest field mark the bill shape can still be useful.  The Western's bill is almost always more finely-tipped than the Semipalmated, which is more blunt-tipped.  The biggest difference in the shape is the overall body shape.  When these two species are seen together, the shape differences are obvious, when seen separately it can be difficult to discern.  If you look at a Semipalmated Sandpiper as a teeter-totter it would look even, neither side would be much heavier than the other.  If you did the same to a Western Sandpiper, one side would be weighed down.  So, in normal terms, the Western Sandpipers look front heavy and are very large chested.

Semipalmated Sandpiper
Breeding Semipalmated Sandpiper:  Bill:  short, blunt-tipped, Plumage:  mostly brown
overall, Shape:  Evenly distributed
To see the photographer's photostream go to:
Maçarico-rasteirinho (Calidris pusilla)
Nonbreeding Semipalmated Sandpiper:  Bill:  short, blunt-tipped, Plumage:  dark streaking
on sides of chest, but the streaking isn't messy, or down the sides at all
To see the photographer's photostream go to:

By Plumage:

In breeding plumage these species are easy to identify due to the striking plumage of the Western.  The rufous in the crown, auriculars, and scapulars should do the trick when identifying this shorebird.  Semipalmateds are more evenly colored overall and are never as bright as Western Sandpipers.  

In nonbreeding plumage these two are quite difficult to identify.  If you are not comfortable identifying these species by shape there are a couple plumage characteristics to look for.  The most obvious is the messy streaking on the chest and sides of Western Sandpiper.  In some cases, Western will show some streaking or chevrons down the sides which Semipalmated don't show.  A less obvious characteristic to look for is the whiter chest of the Western.  The Semipalmated show dense streaking on the chest which causes the Semipalmated to look dark-chested.

western sandpiper
Breeding Western Sandpiper:  Plumage:  very brightly colored on the scapulars,
auriculars, and crown, note streaking/chevrons down the side, Bill:  long, decurved
To see the photographer's photostream go to: 

Nonbreeding Western Sandpiper:  Bill:  long, decurved, Plumage:  messy streaking on the chest, some streaking
down the sides (Semipalmated doesn't show this)
To see the other peep identification posts go to and scroll down.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Identification of Adult "Long-winged" Peeps

Adult peeps can be relatively easy to identify during some parts of the year, while at others they can be one of the bigger identification challenges to birders.  Since most birders rely on plumage differences to identify birds, the adult peeps in breeding plumage are the easiest to identify.  While in nonbreeding plumage the peeps can look quite similar and structure is the best way to differentiate between species.

Breeding and Nonbreeding Long-winged Peeps

Baird's Sandpiper

In breeding and nonbreeding plumage, the Baird's Sandpiper has an overall buffy tone (especially in the face and throat) that is not alike any other shorebirds.  For some birders the black loral spot is the most noticeable feature on this species.  This mark can be shown by other species however, so it shouldn't be the sole identifying factor.  The loral spot is the most bold on the Baird's though.  The short, straight black bill is a differentiating factor from the White-rumped.  Also, notice the clean white sides on the Baird's, on the White-rumped there is streaking.

Molting adult Baird's Sandpiper:  notice the buffy wash on the face, throat, and chest, bold black spotting on the
scapulars and coverts, straight black bill, and long wings

Adult nonbreeding Baird's Sandpiper:  notice the black loral spot, buffy wash through
the head, chest, and throat, gray back, and long wings.

To see the photographer's photostream go to: 

White-rumped Sandpiper

Breeding plumaged White-rumped Sandpipers are quite distinct in breeding plumage if you are afforded a good view.  The easiest field mark to notice is the orange base to the bill but it is not bright on some individuals so can be difficult to see.  Breeding plumaged White-rumped also show reddish/orange marking throughout the scapulars, mantle, auriculars, and crown.  Another important field mark to notice is the streaking down the sides.  No other peep shows this much streaking on the sides.  

White-rumped Sandpiper - Calidris fuscicollis - Vaðlatíta
Breeding White-rumped Sandpiper:  Notice the reddish markings through the scapulars,
mantle, crown and auriculars, streaking on the sides, and orange-based bill

To see the photographer's photostream go to: 

Nonbreeding White-rumped Sandpipers are very gray overall compared to the brownish wash of the Baird's Sandpiper.  In nonbreeding plumage the most important aspects are the orange-based bill, fairly distinct white supercilium, and streaking down the flanks.  

Maçarico-de-sobre-branco (Calidris fuscicollis)
Adult nonbreeding White-rumped Sandpiper:  Notice the white supercilium, streaking
down the flanks, orange-based bill, long wings, and overall gray plumage

To see the photographer's photostream go to: 
To see our top 5 rated shorebird field guides go to:

To see how to differentiate the long-winged vs. short-winged peeps go to:


Monday, August 13, 2012

Bonaparte's and Franklin's Gulls

On Saturday morning, I went birding at Eagle Creek in hopes that a bunch of shorebirds would have arrived with the fronts that had passed through our area. Unfortunately, it appeared that all of the shorebirds left and no new ones came in. Even though there were no shorebirds, finding my first Bonaparte's Gulls of the fall made the day exciting. While I was watching both an alternate plumaged individual and a juvenile, I got to thinking about the questions that we get about how to tell Bonaparte's and Franklin's Gulls apart. Sure in alternate plumage, it is not all that difficult but once they have molted into basic plumage it becomes much more tricky. Here are a few tips that should make identifying these species very easy.

Bonaparte's Gull

  • Thin black bill
  • Pink Legs
  • Distinctive black ear-spot
Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) Adult non-breeding
Notice all of the features described above, black bill, pink legs, and a black ear-spot. Check out this photographer's photostream on Flickr at

Franklin's Gull

  • Short, thick black bill
  • Black Legs
  • Partial black hood
  • Appears more chunky and less elegant looking than Bonaparte's
Franklin's Gull
This Franklin's Gull shows all of the classic things to look for when identifying this species, short black bill, black legs, and a partial black hood. Also notice the pattern on the tip of the wing. A Bonaparte's Gull will not show this pattern. Check out this photographer's photostream on Flickr at
This should make your process of identifying these birds in basic plumage much simpler but what happens if they are in molt between alternate and basic plumage? Can you identify the bird in this photo?


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Identification of the "Peeps": Long-winged vs. Short-winged

As stated in the previous peep identification post (that can be read here) the peeps can be split up into two distinct groups; the large (long-winged) and the small (short-winged).  At times, it is not possible to tell whether the primaries extend past the tail tip, but at most times the longer, attenuated shape of the long-winged peeps is obvious.  The short-winged peeps have a more compact shape that is noticeable at a distance.

Both birds in this photo are molting adults (we'll talk about plumages of peeps later)
The large peeps are also longer legged and longer necked.  The large peeps appear to be larger versions of the small peeps and smaller versions of the Pectoral Sandpiper (although structure is quite different).  When feeding the large peeps tend to tip over more so their tail and and primaries are sticking up towards the sky.  This is due to the longer legs but similar length bills.  Although the Least Sandpiper can also appear "tipped-over" due to their shorter bill than other peeps.

There are two species in this photo.  Can you identify both species?
The next post will concentrate on identifying the large peeps using plumage characteristics.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Identifying the Peeps: Overview

The "peeps" are among the hardest birds to identify when you don't have experience with them.  They are also especially difficult when they are in basic plumage but can be relatively easy to identify when in breeding and juvenile plumages.  The peeps include 5 species of small shorebirds; Baird's, White-rumped, Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpiper.  As always, breaking down this group will help with the identification of this group.

The "Large" Peeps

Only the Baird's and White-rumped fit into this category and while neither is a large shorebird they are slightly larger than the other three species of peeps.  The most noticeable difference between the two groups is the lenght of the wings when at rest.  Due to the longer wings the "large" peeps have a slimmer, longer, more attenuated look.

The "Small" Peeps

The Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers fit into this category.  These are three of our smallest shorebirds; the Least ranks as the smallest sandpiper in the United States.  As noted above, the "small" peeps have short wings that don't extend past the tail tip.  This feature makes these species look more compact and less elegant.

Here is a little quiz to start off with before delving too deeply into peep identification:

There are two species in this photo, one from each group mentioned above. 
Let us know what you think about the identification of the quiz birds!


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Juvenile Eastern Phoebe Photos

A couple weeks ago, as Rob and I were walking across some mudflats, this Eastern Phoebe started feeding within about 15 feet of us.  He was successful on a couple of his forays before he flew off.

Eastern Phoebe-watching a dragonfly that went by

Eastern Phoebe-the head on view


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Shorebird Identification Help: 5 Essential Tips

There are some skills and general observations that translate to identifying all shorebirds.  While I have been focusing on specific groups some of the generalities have probably become obvious.  For example, when identifying any shorebird the more observant you can be towards shape, the more likely you will be able to correctly identify the bird.

Here are my top 5 tips for identifying shorebirds,
1.  Of course we start with shape.  Shape, shape, shape.  As soon as you start noticing the shape of shorebirds, you will quickly improve your identification skills.  Of course, field experience is the best way to learn but studying beforehand will give you a little more confidence in the field.

2.  Concentrate on the close shorebirds.  I would suggest going out to the best shorebird spot near you and concentrating on the closest shorebirds; don't worry about the distant shorebirds. Once you are confident on the close shorebirds you will be able to apply your new-found skills to distant birds.

3.  Learn the differences in plumage between juveniles and adults.  This is helpful in the fall when shorebirds become more confusing due to the juvenile plumages.  For the most part, the differences between juveniles and adults are obvious.  If you know a bird to be a juvenile then you can rule out any adults of species that look similar.

A juvenile Least Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla, alternate (breeding) plumage
Adult Least Sandpiper in alternate (breeding plumage).  Notice the huge
difference between this plumage and the juvenile.
Go to to see the
photographer's photostream

4.  Learn flight patterns.  It is often easier to pick out the odd shorebird out of a flying flock than a resting flock.  Many species show different wing and rump patterns and the overall sizes of the birds are more obvious when shorebirds are in flight.  For example, White-rumped Sandpipers show a complete white rump when in flight; this is difficult to see on a resting bird.

White-rumped Sandpiper - Calidris fuscicollis - Vaðlatíta
White-rumped Sandpiper- You can see the white rump if you are in the right position
but as soon as it takes flight the white rump will be extremely noticeable
Go to to see
the photographer's photostream

5.  Study before going out.  This is an essential part of the preparation process before going out into the field.  When you know what to look for because you have studied a field guide, you will learn more when studying a bird in the field.  You can see my previous post about which field guides are the best for shorebirds here.