Nashville Warbler Underside – Field Notes

Since Saturday’s weather was lousy for photos, and I didn’t get any decent ones Sunday, I’ll go with field notes from the weekend concerning Nashville Warbler Underside pattern.

I have previously covered this topic and with migration getting into swing, now is a good time to review. Especially since I personally haven’t done it lately…

Saturday morning while out with Mike, I spotted a small bird that never gave a good overall look. The view was from below and not for long. I’ll make a disclaimer I did see one other ID which I’ll discuss later.

First off, I was pretty sure it was a warbler with an outside shot at being a vireo.

The underside pattern from head to tail:

  1. Bright Yellow throat and onto the breast.
  2. White Belly.
  3. Bright Yellow undertail coverts.
The underside color pattern was basically bright yellow, white, bright yellow. The yellow parts were almost the same portion but the white was a little less. Maybe a 35%, 30%, 35%. distribution

With an unique pattern I thought the ID would have been straight forward. On to Sibleys – Eastern North America for a quick look to confirm. Or so I thought.

A quick look through the vireos didn’t produce a match. And a quick run through the warblers didn’t either. So a slower look was in order.

What we missed was Nashville Warbler underside matches that description but the drawing doesn’t show as much white as I saw on the belly. We simple overlooked it. But as far as I can tell it is the only Eastern Warbler matching that pattern.

Nashville Warbler Underside
Sorry to say I don’t have a photo of a Nashville Warbler showing what I’m discussing. The white on the bird Saturday had white extending up into the breast. By Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – This image originates from the National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Serviceat

Now back to the disclaimer. I had the advantage of seeing a bright eye ring. But I didn’t want to use until I was sure from the underside pattern.

Review Warbler Underside Patterns 

Now is the time. I’ll once again reference the chart shown in the first sentence post. It’s from Dunn and Garrett’s Warblers. Taking 15 minutes with it will pay dividends in the field. The other thing is to go through your favorite field guide and look for the underside patterns. There are a few unique patterns that are distinguishable but knowing which are yellow or white, or darker tail colors, will help eliminate species in the field.

I also recommend writing down each underside color and tail patterns. As I wrote in two articles – article one and two – research has shown by writing things down it will help you retain it.

Red-headed Woodpecker Flight

I have repeatedly harped since I started this blog about taking the time to read and reread your favorite field guide. And I have repeatedly stated that I wished I would follow my own advice. That has to change since I once again learned something I would have known if I had paid attention to my field guide. A Red-headed Woodpecker flight looks an awfully lot like a Blue Jay in flight.

First the flying Red-headed Woodpecker. Leaving the local park a week ago I saw a bird flying from the park across a plowed corn field. It was headed to trees a quarter-mile away on private land. At first glance I assumed the bird was a Blue Jay since they are numerous at the park. And the flight was like any Corvid – straight and direct.

But something wasn’t right. Every time the bird moved its wing the white on the under-wing was more than it should have been. More like a Red-headed Woodpecker. But woodpeckers have an undulating flight. Correct?

And this is where the field guide comes in to play. If I had paid closer attention to Red-headed Woodpecker in my Sibley’s Guide I would have noticed the one insert by the top photo – “flight steady and jay-like, with rowing wing-beats”.

rhwo-sibley-a Red-Headed Woodpecker Flight
I have highlighted in yellow the line I should have picked up years ago about a Red-headed Woodpecker flight. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
Now compare the Red-headed Woodpecker’s flight photo to the Blue Jay. Not much difference except the large white under-wing. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

I was driving and never had the chance to stop and confirm the bird’s ID. When I finally had the chance to turn down the side road by the of trees I noticed they were the preferred habitat of Red-headed Woodpeckers – Pin Oaks. Something else I hadn’t noticed previously.

Have I been misidentifying Red-headed Woodpeckers in flight? I don’t think so. There are too few of them and the flashing white under-wing patch is distinctive.

I didn’t count the Red-headed Woodpecker since I wasn’t 100% sure. But it will give me another thing to check out over the next couple of weeks.

Distinguishing Two High-Pitched Calls

As I referenced in my last post I spent 3 hours at the local park last weekend. Besides the woodpeckers another reason I was there that long was I finally took the time distinguishing two high-pitched calls – the Brown Creeper’s and Golden-crowned Kinglet’s.

I have referenced before I can still hear very high sounds. We take an annual hearing test at work and my results have barely moved in over a decade. The chart on my left ear hasn’t moved and my right ear barely. So I usually hear both Brown Creepers and Golden-crowned Kinglets before other people.

But that doesn’t mean I can distinguish between the two.  

Both species were in the same area Saturday which gave me ample time for distinguishing between the two high-pitched calls.

Upon exiting the car, I immediately heard one of the high-pitched calls. Seeing as I was in the parking lot with only a few trees that meant they were probably Golden-crowned Kinglets. I don’t know about you but they are hard to see feeding in even a half-leaved tree. It took a few minutes before I finally spotted two near the tree top.

I think one of the distinguishing features of a Golden-crowned Kinglet is it always looks mad about something. Franklin Township Community Park 10-30-16

Listening for a few minutes before the pair flew I decided the call sounded like see repeated over 4-5 times, stopped, and repeated: seeseeseesee seeseeseesee

I little later in the walk I came across 3 Brown Creepers in a wooded area. I watched and listened to them. It sounded more like a repeated trill lasting for a second: seeeeet

brcr-1 two high-pitched calls
It isn’t often I come across numerous Brown Creepers in the same area, so I took the opportunity to learn their call. Southeastway Park 11/12/16

The two sounded basically the same but I could pick up the different notes of the kinglet while the creeper’s notes trilled together. So there is a difference.

The ultimate test came when I came across both species together (along with several other woodland species). This time the Golden-crowned Kinglets were making the repeated call but were also making more single note calls – a long repeating seet – seet seet seet

So could I distinguish the two species by sound? Yes.

The trill of the Brown Creeper gave it away versus the Golden-crowned Kinglet’s more distinctive single notes. I’m sure both species have other calls but these are the ones I usually hear in the Midwest.

Once again spending a couple of hours to learn something instead of seeing how many species I could chalk up will pay dividends.

Migration Pathways – Stuck in the Middle

As I stated a couple of weeks ago one of the reasons I was glad to see migrating Turkey Vultures is I rarely get to see any migrating raptors. And I think the main reason is I live between the main migration pathways.

Every year I wonder if migrating raptors take the same paths. I assume so since they know what will be the most economical path to move south.

This year I’ve been checking the Detroit River Hawk Watch daily recap to see which migrating raptors are on the move. It’s fun to see the days with large movements and hope some of the birds might actually head this direction.

But it isn’t so.

It seems raptors take a different path after crossing from Canada and heading south to Texas. I checked for detail on migration paths but didn’t find much info except for the following chart at the Hawk Mountain website.

raptor-migration-routes migration pathways
A chart of raptor migration from Hawk Mountain Web Site.
Note how birds crossing at Detroit (purple dot) move north of my location (red dot).

As seen on the maps once birds cross at Detroit they appear to follow the Wabash River towards the Mississippi Flyway. And migrating eastern birds stay well east following the Appalachian corridor.

So for the most part I’m stuck between migration pathways.

Looking at the map it seems migrating raptors follow mountain ridges, coast lines, and major rivers. Nothing new there. Makes sense they would follow rivers versus flying blind over corn fields.

But when I lived in Illinois I was on the Illinois River which is a major part of the Mississippi Flyway. On the chart above you can even see one of the lines follows the Illinois River.

But I never saw great numbers of migrating raptors.

Which brings me to the other point I observed watching the Turkey Vultures a few weeks ago. They move fast. Maybe it doesn’t matter where you are since they go by quickly.   Unless you are at hawk watching site for 8 hours a day actually looking skyward all the time. I would have missed the Turkey Vultures if I hadn’t been looking at the airplane.

I guess the moral of the story is like most of life, you need to be at the right place at the right time looking in the right direction.

Hairy Woodpecker – Common?

Let’s say you got the following request:  “I’m from out of your area and will be in town next week. And I really want to see a Hairy Woodpecker. Could you help?”

I don’t know about you but my reply would be “How much time do you have?”

As I alluded at the end of the last post – birds listed as common sometimes aren’t.

I prided myself in LaSalle County Illinois and now Johnson County Indiana of knowing where to find the abundant, common, and scarce birds.

But on any given day is anything abundant to common? Some are “usually” abundant – like Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, others common – like a Northern Flicker, and scarcer like Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers.

So where does the Hairy Woodworker fall? 

Supposedly Fairly Common per National Geographic and Dunne. At least Sibley lists it as uncommon.

But I can’t tell you with certainty where to find one in Johnson County. And that bothers me.

HAWO Hairy Woodpecker
How uncommon is a Hairy Woodpecker? I had to use a photo from the Internet since I couldn’t find one of my own. Granted, I didn’t start tagging photos until I started the blog, but that was 3 years ago. DickDaniels ( – Own work  http://CC BY-SA 3.0

All I know is when we have a count – Christmas, Big May Day – there is a sigh of relieve when someone says they saw a Hairy Woodpecker.

Maybe people are seeing them at their feeders but I’m not a feeder type guy.

There are several other birds listed as common such as Belted Kingfisher, Carolina Wren, and Song Sparrow which seem to be scarce on count days. There are more but you get the idea.

The point is to demonstrate the only sure way to know your local bird distribution is to bird the different habitats regularly.

4 Simple Steps to ID Raptors in Flight

One of the biggest problems I had starting out birding was learning the bigger birds that flew by at a distance.  I’m not talking far away or up in the clouds, but birds at a reasonable distance that I thought I should be able to ID. Here is the process I developed and used the other day to ID a big bird. Nothing unique here, just the basics that you can find at several sources.

1. Once Again, Know Your Status and Distribution

There might be a rare raptor fly by but 99%+ of large birds that fly by will be expected birds and in decreasing percentages.  For Central Indiana this is what I would expect to see in mid-September.

S&D Raptors
Looking under the Sep column you can see the expected raptors (less falcons) for Indiana. There would be basically nine choices. eBird Bar Chart for Indiana

2. Study your Field Guide for Raptors in Flight

I like Sibley’s basic drawings showing raptors in flight.  I have used them to compare my own rough sketches. It is remarkable with just a little practice you can match up raptors to his drawings.  But you need to take time to watch birds you have positively ID to match the sketch.

RTHA SibleyA
I like the basic sketches that Sibley puts in the upper right hand of most of the larger birds. Once again it shows something doesn’t need to be fancy, just get the point across. From The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

Which takes us to…

3. Confirm or Eliminate it’s not a Red-tailed Hawk

In the Midwest, and probably the whole US, the first thing to do is learn your local Red-tailed Hawk.  If you haven’t spent time studying Red-tailed Hawks you need to. This is far and away the most important thing you can do to ID raptors.  By confirming or eliminating Red-tailed Hawks you have probably eliminated over half of the choices. (That  would be an interesting number – what percent of all raptors you see are Red-tailed Hawks?)

4. Narrow it down from there

Maybe I make it too simple but that’s about it for me.  After step 3 there isn’t much else to do but figure which raptor it is or decide you don’t have enough info to confirm the ID. Remember you aren’t going to be able to ID everything.

Now the story

While scanning my local shorebird spot late Saturday morning, which is developing nicely but too late in the season, a large raptor flew by. Luckily I was taking a break from scanning the far shore or I would never have seen it. How many birds do we miss by having our eyes to the scope?  Another question to ponder.

My local shorebird spot is developing nicely, but probably a little too late in migration. South Indianapolis 9/12/15

I immediately knew it was bigger and flying differently than a Red-tailed Hawk.  It was moving right to left at a good pace without showing any signs of stopping or slowing down. I caught sight of it when it was already a little left of center.

Double-crested Cormorants didn’t really cross my mind. But I did have these four fly over Sunday morning which is a little unusual in our area. Greenwood 9/13/15

And here was my thought process.

By size I immediately eliminated Red-tailed Hawk which meant I eliminated anything smaller than a Red-tailed.  I ruled out Turkey Vulture since the bird was flying hard and fast with no teetering. So that brought it down to Bald Eagle, which I have on one occasion seen within a few miles of here, or an Osprey. And from the “floppy” flight I knew it was an Osprey.

So that took me about 5 seconds. I’m watching, thinking, and bringing the camera up all at the same time.  And in those 5 seconds the bird had flown far to the south. So here is the only shot I got of the Osprey flying away. But even from this photo I could tell it was an Osprey from the wing pattern.

The Osprey had already moved far to the south but even at this distance the “floppy” wings were evident. South Indianapolis 9/12/15
OSPR SibleyA
Compare the above photo to Sibley’s drawing of an Osprey in flight. To my eye they match up pretty close. From The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

Something I learned from watching Osprey’s is their “droopy” flight pattern. The wings are held up at the shoulder and droop at the elbow.

I learned most of what I know about Osprey flight from watching a late migrating pair for a couple of hours on the Illinois River at Marseilles on 10/22/2010. To conclude here are a few photos from that morning.

OSPR 102311 (4) OSPR 102311 (3) OSPR 102311 (2)

 OSPR 102311 (7)

OSPR 102311


What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 2

Last week I wrote about my search for a better way to learn birds. I will now conclude the story. (link to last week’s blog)

What the Researchers Discovered

The researchers found out that the most effective way of learning and more importantly, retaining, is to learn a small amount of material and test yourself on it. Repeatedly.  Using things like flashcards or small written tests. Once you have learned a small amount of material do the same thing with the next group of material.  BUT MAKE SURE TO GO BACK AND TEST YOURSELF ON THE PREVIOUS MATERIAL ON A REGULAR BASIS.

Here is a link to research by a group of professors and another article on the topic.

On to Southern California and Costa Rica

So how did I implement the research?  For next to nothing I purchased a second copy of Stiles and Skutch’s Birds of Costa Rica from Amazon. I already had a copy of Sibley’s Western Birds that I decided to sacrifice for the cause.  After reviewing status and distribution charts for both areas, I came up with a list of birds to study.

Using an Exacto knife I proceeded to cut out the selected birds and tape them to the back of 3×5 note cards.  Then I wrote the key field marks and for Costa Rica birds the area’s they might be seen. I started with the birds listed as common and moved to uncommon.  This was not a fast process.  I had the common birds done in a couple of weeks.  However I was still cutting out the uncommon species the week before we left for Costa Rica.

Gray-headed Chachalaca
And now the real thing. In a light rain a Gray-headed Chachalaca which was easy to ID after studying the cards. La Fortuna area, Costa Rica 12/16/14


Yellow-throated Euphonia
Yellow-throated Euphonia giving some Tanagers a hard time. La Fortuna area 12/16/14

055I ended up with well over 200 cards, which can be seen by the size of the stack.

056I settled in a routine of quizzing myself while I was on the treadmill (i.e. dreadmill – I hate being indoors).  Let me say that sure helped pass the time.  I worked in groups of 15-20 cards and would quiz myself on the picture, asking what field marks made this different from similar species.  I usually never did get them all right, like confusing the Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Red-legged Honeycreeper.

My Results

Here is the key point, the birds whose names I couldn’t remember immediately in the field, I recognized enough that I could describe them in my voice recorder and easily ID them back at the lodge.

In both Southern California and Costa Rica I had no problems with any of the birds I studied. The problem I did have were birds that were so low on the status and distribution lists that I hadn’t bothered to learn them.  Carrying the voice recorder and describing the birds in detail made ID’ing them relatively easy though.

I finished both trips without any lingering doubts like I had on previous trips.

The Future

Going forward I will now use this method before migration or before traveling to new areas. I have already made cards for the winter finches and hawks I might encounter in the Midwest.  Soon I will be making cards for what I hope will be an early spring migration.


So how do you learn new birds? Please leave an answer in the comment section.





Birding 2015 – Up 4 Already

If you have been following this blog, you know I would be content to bird my local area. But by having a birding goal or plan it gives me the push to explore different areas and habitats. Something I, and everyone else, needs to do on occasion to expand their birding knowledge.

So with that being said I have been thinking for a few weeks about what my birding plans should be for 2015.  I was thinking about maybe a Marion versus Johnson County total or some variant. But I just wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do with the time I have.

With the price of gas down and not quite certain what my new job will bring, I ‘ve decided to work on my Indiana Life List.  I know this isn’t my usual “birding the local area,” but I’m not sure how often I will be around the local area.

This doesn’t entail “chasing” but birding the right areas at the right times to add birds to my state life list. This is birding a way a lot of birders go about it. Like visiting Lake Michigan in winter for gulls and waterfowl. Or going to Goose Pond in winter for hawks or owls. Those type of outings.

Checking my state life list I figure there are a possible 42 species I could see by doing “normal”, non-chasing, birding around the state.  And another 18 if I get lucky.  So hopefully I can get 75% of the possible species, 25% of the lucky ones, plus 5 I hadn’t figured on. Like a Snowy Owl. So I hope to add 40 species to my Indiana Life List.

And I will probably have the opportunity to bird several different areas in the U.S. which means working on my ABA list. Plus hopefully get back to the tropics this year.  But that hasn’t been worked out yet.

I Have Already Added 4 Species to My Indiana Life List This Year

OK, technically 3. I went ahead and added Whooping Crane since the ABA changed the rule on Whooping Crane countability.  I saw them in 2013 at Goose Pond.

Mike Clay asked I go along and participate in this year’s Muscatatuck CBC on January 1, a count he has been helping with for 10 years..  The birding was slow but we did see 2 Trumpeter Swans, though they weren’t in our count area.

TRUS Picture by Dave Carr from dBird
This photo was taken by third person in our group, Dave Carr. He took the photo in the afternoon after we had headed out to count on the roads. You can read his analysis here, which I totally agree.

On the way back we checked out the Snowy Owl that has been in the Jonesville area.  As with most Snowy Owls I encountered in Illinois it was using something as a wind break.

SNOW Jackson County IN
I bet over 80% of the Snowy Owls I have seen were up against something – railroad tracks, silos, fence rows. Very rarely out in the open.

And Saturday I birded Eagle Creek in the rain and saw the easiest bird on my Indiana List – Pine Siskin. I watched them at the Ornithology Center’s feeders. Seeing birds not in a natural habitat isn’t something I like, but I have never seen Pine Siskin anywhere but feeders in the Midwest.  So I will count them and move on.

PISI Eagle Creek 010314
I just wish I could have taken better pictures to show the pointed bills, stripped undersides, and yellow in the lower wing bar. But the rain was coming down pretty hard.

PISI Eagle Creek 010314A

So what are your birding plans for 2015?

March Forecast – 2014 – Hopefully Open Water !

I had planned to post this last Saturday but the arrival of the Long-tailed Duck made me shift blogging gears.

I don’t care how long I have been birding, but at the start of every month I still go through the exercise of seeing which birds I should expect in my local area – Johnson County, IN – for the next month.  I find it helps me to think about birds that might be coming through my area that I am not expecting.  After identifying the uncommon birds for the month I then go through my resources to make sure I know their key field marks, habitats, etc. I have also found that this exercise helps when I am out in the field and I see/hear a bird I haven’t seen for six months.  Once I see it something in the back of my mind goes, “Oh yea, that bird should be coming through this month”. Since I go though this exercise anyway I thought I would share this to help refresh everyone minds.

I also use it to help plan my outings by looking for the expected  uncommon birds that month.  I break down the month into early and late and look for the birds that should be coming through during those times.  With this routine I should see the birds that I would expect plus a few I hadn’t expected.  Case in point, last Saturday I was just expecting to see the expected waterfowl, but I came across a Long-tailed Duck.  The days before that I saw on IBird that there had been a constant flux of Long-tailed Ducks in the area over the last few days.  So I was somewhat prepared to ID Long-tailed Duck.

For March one birding in Johnson County IN a normal number of hours and habitats should see 84 species of birds, more or less.  This is par.

I first heard the wing beats of this Mute Swan as it flew over me.  Atterbury FWA 03/02/13
I first heard the wing beats of this Mute Swan as it flew over me. Atterbury FWA 03/02/13

Birds that are uncommon in Johnson County this time of year and that you will probably have to work a little harder to see: Common Loon, Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, Northern Pintail, Canvasback, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Ring-billed Gull, Hermit Thrush, American Pipit, Rusty Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, and Purple Finch.

I found these 3 on a small pond east of Franklin - 03/02/13.
I found these 3 Snow Geese on a small pond east of Franklin – 03/02/13.


Finding Uncommon Birds in Winter – Open Water

On my first Christmas Bird Count several years ago I came to know the importance of water in a bird’s life.  It was a typical December in North-Central Illinois and Tom Williams and I were doing the NW corner of the Hennepin CBC.  Typical meant that it was cold, snowy, and everything had frozen up weeks ago.  Since we didn’t have a portion of the Illinois River, which was kept open for barge traffic, we wouldn’t have any open water.  But Tom had done the count for several years and knew a spot that should.

And yes there was a spot.  On the side of a country road that ran along of the river bluff, was a seep where water would slowly come out of the bluff.  It would run along the road for 50-60′ and then go under the road and form a bog on the other side.  So in the middle of all this ice and snow was open water and a green, mossy landscape.  Tom said unless it was a real hard winter there was always some open water. Perfect for uncommon birds like snipe and Swamp Sparrows.

And the birds we did see!  There was every bird you should see in North-Central Illinois in winter – jays, cardinals, nuthatches, woodpeckers – big and small and red-headed, finches, titmice, etc.  Plus a Northern Waterthrush and Brewer’s Blackbird.  I still think that those are the best birds I ever had on a CBC.  And it was my first CBC.

This Winter Wren was found on one of the few open patches of water on the I&M Canal on a 2011 CBC.  We would walk the 4 mile segment of the canal, that year through snow, hoping for spots of open water and birds.
This Winter Wren was found on one of the few open patches of water on the I&M Canal on a 2011 CBC. We would walk the 4 mile segment of the canal, that year through snow, hoping for spots of open water and birds.

The importance of seeps was reinforced this year when I found a seep at Driftwood SFA during the Johnson County CBC.  At that location I found the only Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, and Eastern Phoebe found on the count, which are all uncommon for the count.

From those experiences I have learned the importance of water in a bird’s life.  Especially in a cold winter like this one.  And I also learned where to look for birds in a hard Midwest winter – Open Water.  If you can find open water in winter you can usually find common and uncommon birds.

These Bald Eagles are on Plum Island just down river of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam in Illinois.  I wish I had a picture but the water above the dam was frozen and birds - eagles, gulls, and other waterfowl -  would congregate below the dam feeding in the open water.
These Bald Eagles are on Plum Island just down river of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam in Illinois. I wish I had a picture but the water above the dam was frozen and birds – eagles, gulls, and other waterfowl – would congregate below the dam feeding in the open water.

Open water in the Midwest can take several forms.  Open rivers and creeks.  Particularly ones that have a lock and dam where birds might congregate on the open water side.  Ponds, especially ones that have some sort of bubbler or aerator to keep the water from freezing.  The previously mentioned seeps.  Drainage ditches where constant runoff from a warm building might keep it open.  And creeks that never freeze for reasons I probably don’t want to know.

One of the few areas of open water this past winter and waterfowl would congregate there.  I wonder why it didn't freeze like other creeks?  Or do I really want to know?  Hurricane Creek - Franklin.
One of the few areas of open water this past winter and waterfowl would congregate there. I wonder why it didn’t freeze like other creeks? Or do I really want to know? Hurricane Creek – Franklin.

Can you think of any other forms of open water in winter I might have missed?  Please post in the comments section.