Saturday, May 30, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

Question: "We were visiting San Juan Island this last week and saw an orange bird with brown/olive wings. I am wondering if you can help me identify it. I have attached a picture of the orange bird and another one that came to the feeding tray at the same time and I am wondering what the identification is of this bird as well. Thank you."


Answer: Yes, Joanna. The larger birds are Red Crossbills. The red one is the male and the olive one is the female. The smaller striped bird is Pine Siskin. These are both common birds throughout the Pacific NW--especially near forested areas. [Click photos above for larger view.]

Question: "Feel a bit sheepish posting this question, since I've been paying attention to birds around Portland for a number of years now, think maybe I'm supposed to know.... but I don't know what these were, I couldn't get binoculars on them on time, then they were gone.

Flock of around 15-20 medium-sized birds flying to the tops of firs at SE 71st and Clinton (ish) in Portland. I only saw them from underneath; they had short tails and their bellies appeared pale and unmarked (not streaky) from where I was (which was on a lawn two houses away from the very tall firs, so possibly too far away to say they weren't streaky). The tail looked darker; the tail was fairly straight across, just a mild convex curve. They were making sharp calls (not whistling like cedar waxwings). These seemed consistent with everything I've heard about red crossbills - the call could have been described as "jip," the flocking, the fir (they hung out on the fir and appeared to be feeding, then flew off as a group) - but I've never actually been certain I've seen a crossbill before, and they didn't look reddish from below. Also, no one on OBOL is talking about seeing crossbills, and I feel like people like to post crossbill sightings if flocks are around.

So.... since I admire the way you identify birds from scanty data... thought I'd impose and provide my meager description.

Thanks for any relief you can provide."

Susan in Portland, Oregon

Answer: Well, my first guess was going to be Cedar Waxwings. I saw my first flock this spring just yesterday, though some hang around Portland most winters.

The reason I don't think your description fits Red Crossbill is that crossbills are generally small and streaked underneath. They are plump, House Finch-sized, but quite short tailed with strong fork or notch, not squared as you describe.

That leaves Evening Grosbeaks. Evening Grosbeaks are everywhere right now, making sharp loud calls. Because they are so common right now I recently wrote In the backyard... Evening Grosbeaks.

Question: "Yesterday I found a nest right next to the house where I was weed eating..., contained very small eggs (2 cm X 1 cm) with many brown speckles. Main color - rather tanish. No birds around. what is this bird ? thank you for your time."

"The nest was rather hidden beside the house, very small nest, eggs in a small round nest with dry grass and a few hairs or fur of another animal."

Sandra in Port Townsend, Washington

Answer: Sandra, one hundred years ago a birder was likely to be one who collected eggs and nests of birds. Birding has changed since then, and it is now illegal to possess nests, eggs, feathers, or any other part or whole wild bird without a permit. Thus, most modern field guides no longer describe the nest and eggs. However, my first bird book does--Peterson's 1969 Field Guide to Western Birds. It is nearly worn completely out, and held together with tape, but I wouldn't be without it, for I wrote in it voice descriptions and other helpful ID tips. But I digress.... Based on the placement of the nest on or near the ground and made of grass, as well as the small speckled eggs, my guess is Dark-eyed Junco. Peterson describes the nest as: "a well-lined cup on ground in woods. Eggs (4-5) spotted)." More information about juncos is in the article In the backyard... Dark-eyed Junco.

Send your queries about Pacific Northwest bird identification or behavior or other topics. I'll do my best to figure out what you saw. I'll do some research. Then I'll write an article to answer your question. If you have a certain question, no doubt others will, too, and appreciate knowing the answer. My goal will be to do one Q & A article each week, answering all the questions I receive that week. I'll just use your first name and city in my answers. If you send photos I will likely use them (perhaps cropping and adjusting exposure for the web) so others can see what you are seeing.

Send questions to me using this link: PNWBB Q & A