Monday, December 27, 2010

Wing-flicking: Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned KingletThe constant wing-flickinging of Ruby-crowned Kinglet is a characteristic behavior. Photographed at Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 17 December, 2010 by Greg Gillson.


"Tiny active birds of tree branches,... with a characteristic habit of nervously flicking the wings."
-- The Birds of Canada, 1979 by Earl Godfrey.

In our previous identification post about the separation of Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hutton's Vireo we concentrated on the color and shape of feathers, bill, legs, and feet.

Birds also have many interesting behaviors that help separate them. These are rarely mentioned in the field guides--unless conspicuously obvious. Thus field guides typically mention the bobbing and teetering of Spotted Sandpipers, the hovering of Rough-legged Hawks, and the plunge-diving of Belted Kingfishers.

The nervous wing-flicking of Ruby-crowned Kinglet also is mentioned in most field guides.

This innate (instinctive) behavior is like a constant tic. Every couple of seconds the kinglet flicks its wings, as in the photo above. When agitated, it may flick its wings twice in a second. Combined with its constant movement--rarely does a kinglet sit on a branch more then 4-5 seconds--this tiny bird gives the impression of being in a constant state of nervous hyperactivity.

This isn't to say that the look-a-like Hutton's Vireos never flicks their wings, because they do--many small birds do--just not anywhere near the same degree as the kinglets.

Monday, December 20, 2010

ID: Little green bird: Kinglet or Vireo?

Ruby-crowned KingletRuby-crowned Kinglet, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 17 December, 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Last week I was up at Hagg Lake scouting for the Forest Grove Christmas Bird Count to be held the next day. A mixed feeding flock was here and I began photographing some of the more than one-dozen species present in this loose flock of chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, kinglets, and other birds.

As I was photographing the fidgety Ruby-crowned Kinglet above, I changed over to a Hermit Thrush that had popped into the open briefly. Then I came back. But the little green bird was slower and more deliberate. It had changed! A Hutton's Vireo was now in my viewfinder (below).


Hutton's VireoHutton's Vireo, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 17 December 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Besides the differences from hyperactive kinglet to lethargic vireo, can you see the differences in the two birds? This is an intermediate identification challenge--not easy, but not very difficult--if you know where to look.

Both birds are greenish with broken eyerings and two white wingbars. And they are tiny--4 and 1/4 to 5 inches long from the tip of the bill to the end of the tail.

Compare the two photos above as you look for the following field marks...

  1. On the Ruby-crowned Kinglet note the eyering is broken above and below. The Hutton's Vireo has the eyering missing only above the eye.
  2. Notice that there is a blackish band on the base of the secondary feathers of the kinglet, below the lower wingbar. These feathers are edged green on the vireo.
  3. The kinglet has a thin bill. The bill of the vireo is thicker and hooked at the tip.

These are all legitimate field marks. But there is a more obvious field mark to separate these similar-plumaged birds.

Compare the following two photographs...


Ruby-crowned KingletRuby-crowned Kinglet, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 15 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Note the toothpick-thin black legs and yellow feet on the Ruby-crowned Kinglet above.

Compare that with the thick blue-gray legs and feet of the Hutton's Vireo below.

If you need to, go back and compare the legs and feet of the upper set of photos again.

Sometimes the yellow feet of the kinglet is more restricted to the pads on the bottom of the feet. Both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets show this feature.


Hutton's VireoHutton's Vireo, near Timber, Oregon on 22 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Finally, below is another photo of Ruby-crowned Kinglet--this time a male displaying his red crown feathers. But note the legs and feet, the black bar across the secondaries below the white wingbar, the bill, the eyering.

Now you are ready for this identification challenge!


Ruby-crowned KingletRuby-crowned Kinglet, Hagg Lake, Oregon on 29 December 2006 by Greg Gillson.


Monday, December 13, 2010

A cold Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser GoldfinchLesser Goldfinch, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 24 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


The first snowfall of the season--only a quarter inch--caused the Lesser Goldfinches to be extremely unwary. This bird fed at my feet and refused to fly away! My camera lens wouldn't focus any closer!

Lesser Goldfinches usually migrate out of the cold inland portions of the Pacific Northwest. West of the Cascades in Oregon, however, the winters are usually relatively mild at lower elevations, and Lesser Goldfinches spend the winter.

But during some winters there will be periods of days or a week or more of sub-freezing weather. Some birds survive the cold extremely well. Surprisingly, Anna's Hummingbirds seem to make it through a week of freezing weather. Other birds, termed "half-hardy," at the northern edge of their normal winter range, may have difficulty with prolonged cold weather.

A week-long freeze may find Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, and other birds down in the grass looking for food. They may die. It seems Lesser Goldfinches can be added to this list. Even this single two-day event seemed to cause Lesser Goldfinches some distress. The goldfinches I found this day seemed to be lethargic, and either sleeping in the rose bushes or feeding on the weed seeds at the road edge without regard for their safety. This is quite a change from their normal hyperactive behavior.

I have previously written about this bird: In the Backyard... Lesser Goldfinch.

Monday, December 6, 2010

ID Challenge: Horned and Eared Grebes in winter

Horned GrebeHorned Grebe, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 24 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Eared Grebes breed throughout the west from southern Canada to Minnesota, south to Texas, and west to California. In the Pacific NW they breed east of the Cascades and Sierra-Nevada Mountains.

Horned Grebes are more northerly breeders. Though a few isolated pairs may breed south to eastern Oregon, most Horned Grebes breed from southern Canada (British Columbia to the Great Lakes) northward to the Arctic and west into Alaska.

In winter, both species move south to open water. Horned Grebes winter primarily on the ocean and bays from Alaska to California and from Texas to Florida and north along the Atlantic States, also on fresh water in the Southeast.

Eared Grebes tend to winter primarily on open fresh water or estuaries from California to Louisiana, south through Mexico (the National Geographic 5th edition field guide map is more accurate than the big Sibley guide, in this regard).

In the Pacific NW, both grebes winter uncommonly in the valleys west of the Cascades and along the coast. Horned Grebe is more expected, especially along the immediate coast.

In their breeding attire, Eared Grebes are blackish with a wispy yellow ear patch. Horned Grebes are reddish with dark wings and head and yellow "horns" of feathers above and back from the eye.

In "winter" (non-breeding) plumage both species are generally dark gray above and paler below. Horned Grebes tend to be more black-and-white, Eared Grebes more dusky overall, especially on the neck. But first year Horned Grebes can be as dusky-necked as Eared Grebes. Thus, the identification of some individuals can cause confusion--even for experienced birders.

Please compare the photos of the typical non-breeding Horned Grebe above with Eared Grebe below. Both photos are from Forest Grove, Oregon in November, but in different years.


Eared GrebeEared Grebe, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 27 November 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Field guides might point to the varying contrast between the dark and light shades of the neck. However, you will find identification easier if you concentrate, rather, on the shape of the birds.

Specifically, note on the Horned Grebe the thicker neck and larger head with flatter crown. The bill is pointed, but symmetrical above and below.

In contrast, the Eared Grebe is thinner necked with a smaller head. Note that the crown is highly peaked above the eye, not flat. The bill is straight on the upper mandible and with the lower mandible more angled. This gives the appearance of a thinner, sharper, upturned bill.

Using the shape of the head, bill, and neck, you will be able to separate these birds more accurately, throughout the year.