Log In

Reset Password

It’s in your nature: What swallow was that? Hints to help identify birds

Well, the presents are opened and maybe a spouse, a friend or your children gave you some birding gifts. Now, how do I use “The Crossley ID Guide” or, now that I have these great binoculars, what birds can I actually identify?

As previously noted, each year in Carbon County I record over 170 different bird species. To log that many you soon realize that there are so many warbler, sparrow, or flycatcher species to identify. In many cases there is just a certain field mark or two that enable you to distinguish a tree sparrow from a chipping sparrow. I’d like to dedicate this week’s column on helpful field marks to help you raise your annual bird list from 100 to 150 or more birds.

Some birds can be unmistakable. I’m sure a brilliant male cardinal is one species that we all know immediately, even it just darted past your window. But learn a few things from that. The cardinal has a crest, so does a blue jay, an easy field mark to help you.

Look at beak size and shape. The cardinal has a seed crushing bill, while a warbler has a rather long, thin bill to pluck insects from leaves.

Tail shapes can help you, too. A barn swallow has a deeply forked tail, while others may have a “squared off” tail.

Even the tail colors are helpful. Broad-winged hawks have wide, dark bands on their tail, while a red-shouldered hawk’s tail has much narrower bands. A kingbird has a white band of feathers along the distal end of its tail. A flicker has white feathers on its rump, just above the tail’s base.

Facial areas are key to identifying many. Some birds have a distinct eye ring completely encircling their eyes, some have a dark line of feathers “through” the eyes, while others have a dark eyebrow above its eyes. Even a bird’s eye color can aid in identification.

Probably the least helpful field mark is size. If you see a bird, alone, on a limb, it can be difficult to assess its size. The only way that you can “count on size” as a field mark is if two species are literally side by side to make that assessment.

I have selected a number of photos to give you a better idea on what field marks can help you make that accurate identification. Now, grab the “binocs” and get out there.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: True or False: White-tailed deer only are hosts to deer ticks.

Dec. 24 Trivia Answer: Although both the brown and brook trout breed in many of our “clean” streams, only the brook trout is native to Pennsylvania. (But technically, the brook trout is a species of char and not a trout. )

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

Two confusing sparrows are the white-crowned, shown here, and the white-throated. But, the white-crowned sparrow has a distinct white crown stripe, black eye line and white eyebrow.
The white-throated sparrow has a bolder white throat and a characteristic helpful in identifying other birds too, bold yellow lores by its eyes. The lores make its ID certain.
Thrushes are difficult to distinguish. This Swainson's thrush has a great ID feature, the eye ring. It also has buffy colored brown spots on its breast.
Compare the wood thrush, here, with the Swainson's. It too has an eye ring, but note the bold brown spots on a very white breast and belly.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers have plumages almost identical. Remember size is a distinguishing field mark but unless side by side, it is hard to distinguish them apart. But the downy has a much smaller bill. Hairy woodpeckers are seldom found far from the deep woods, too.
The chestnut-sided warbler is a good example to show various field marks. It has a yellow crown, chestnut flanks, white wing bars, a dark eye line and white breast.
The brown thrasher could be mistaken for a wood thrush, but note the long tail, longer bill, and large beady, yellow eyes.
Our two “downward” tree trunk climbers are the red-breasted nuthatch, here, and the white-breasted. The red-breasted has a rufous breast, white eye line, and black eye stripe.
The white-breasted nuthatch, common at your feeders now, has a black cap and true to its name, a white breast and belly. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Showing a few more field marks to learn is the cedar waxwing. It has a crest, black mask, plain tawny breast and belly, and a characteristic yellow edged tail seen easiest in flight.