Rhode Island Rigmarole

Rhode Island bunting, December 2010 (P. L'Etoile)

An “Indigo-type” Bunting was discovered  in early December at Sunset Farms in Narragansett, RI and Paul L’Etoile kindly allowed me to use some images from his collection here:
http://ribird.org/albums/sunset_farm_121610.

The initial images seemed to show a bird more in line with Lazuli (whitish upper wingbar, warm buff tones to the throat, lack of obvious streaking and overall pallid color) than Indigo.

However, subsequent photos, and comments from observers in the field stated that the bird was streaked on the breast which favored Indigo.  Clearly the exposure of the photos affected the bird’s appearance to suggest either species, but on first looks, some observers commented the bird looked good for a first-winter Lazuli (winter Indigo’s are rare).
Also, PL commented that, in the field, the flanks looked bluish, which in itself is diagnostic and identifies it not only as an Indigo but thus a male! One problem with this, is that at this time of year, male Indigo’s are much further along in their preformative moult (Peter Pyle, pers. comm). So, it should be exhibiting a much “bluer” plumage than the RI bird, which if you discount the suggestion of blue flanks, is admittedly rather more female-like.

Rhode Island bunting (P. L'Etoile). Probably the most troubling image for the id. as a Lazuli since it seems to show an Indigo-like paler throat and blurry breast streaks.

Rhode Island bunting (P. L’Etoile). Note fluffed-up feathers revealing darker (blue?) feather bases. Breast pattern sows indistinct muted streaks, but are these indicative of either species and do they rule out Lazuli?

Speaking with other observers, I found myself going back and forth on the identity of this bird, especially since some images seem to show a bird with a slighty whiter throat and fine breast-streaking – both features not exactly kosher for a Lazuli.

A perplexing scenario. Unfortunately, the interest seemed to die-off and the debate disappeared into oblivion with no clear resolve. For reference, here are a couple of reference shots of the Connecticut bird that was present at Hammonassett in the winter of 2008. An educational bird in itself.

1st-year male Lazuli Bunting, Hammonasset S.P, 1/20/07 (JulianHough) The throat is buffish,not white as in Indigo Bunting and is concolorous with the head and breast. The bill is also not as obviously two-toned as in many Indigo Buntings, but it’s unknown if this is a consistent difference. The underparts are uniform and lack the blurry streaks shown by f-w Indigo Buntings. The subtle plumage tones of this individual could easily be altered by the light conditions, but when seen well, the upperbreast was strikingly honey colored and characteristic of this species.

Can the RI bird be confidently identified? Not to discount any field observations, but let’s consider (hypothetically) if these “blue” flanks are not exactly blue, but grey bases to the flank feathers then everything else would line up with the bird being a female. So the question if this is a female, what features are useful in separating Indigo and Lazuli??

Pro-Lazuli features:

  • overall pallid-color, lacking warm upperpart tones
  • white median covert wingbar
  • warm tones to the throat in some images
  • no obvious greyish malar and pale throat

Pro-Indigo features:

  • some photos show a paler, more whitish throat
  • muted streaks are visible on the breast

Bunting specimens, courtesy of the Peabody Museum, New Haven (JulianHough) Note the pale throats and diffuse breast streaking on the Indigo Buntings (right) compared with the Lazuli Bunting (left).The Lazuli Bunting shows the characteristic uniform buffy throat and upperbreast identical to the Hammonassett bird.

Is it OK for first-year Lazuli’s to show fine pencil-streaking on the breast? I think a determination if the presence of streaks is an issue, or whether the shape and density is the main issue. A real puzzler, but I’m not convinced that Lazuli can be confidently ruled out based on the photos.

Rhode Island bunting (P. L'Etoile)

The hammo bird- compare to the picture above of the RI bird.

The hammo bird- compare to the picture above of the RI bird.

Thanks to Paul for capturing shots of this bird and for allowing me to post some of them here. Comments welcome!

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2 Responses to “Rhode Island Rigmarole”

  1. Tony Leukering Says:

    I still don’t think of this problem as a dichotomy — there are more than two choices — and the third choice, a hybrid, is reasonable considering the apparent mix of characters. Of course, we can hope that it stays long enough for it to change plumage and provide, perhaps, a more definitive answer.

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