Archive for the ‘Identification’ Category

Long Tales

October 5, 2016

blogDuring the past couple of years, I have been lucky enough to see a handful of first- and second-cycle Long-tailed Jaegers from pelagics off Massachusetts. I have been intrigued by some of the molt and ageing issues presented by these and put some images and thoughts together.

Yellow-bellied kingbird tail patterns

November 22, 2014

A self-found Western Kingbird, New Haven, CT October 2010. Nice dark tail and pale grey head identify it quickly as a Western, but note the white tail edges are not visible in this view. (Julian Hough)

Vagrant kingbirds such as Tropical, Couch’s and Cassin’s have all been recorded in the north-east and it is only a matter of time before one of these “Western” kingbirds in Connecticut turns into something a bit more exciting.

While Western Kingbird is the expected species, Cassin’s has been recorded in Massachusetts in 2010 (
and recently as last week in Brooklyn, although this was a one-observer sighting and couldn’t be refound.
Pictures clearly solidify the identity (; the second record for NYS after one at Montauk in October 2007 (

The Mass bird was mis-identified as a Western by virtue of its tail pattern, which was blackish and showed prominently white outer webs to the tail feathers, a key id feature of Western. That Cassin’s can show this too means that any yellow-bellied kingbird with a blackish tail and white outer edges may not necessarily be a Western.

A reported Western Kingbird in Bridgeport, without any details of other potential species being systematically ruled out, set off the spidey senses.  Questioning several observers, it seems the bird was distant but the ”white tail edges were apparent” The only pictures we saw seemed somewhat ambiguous – indeed the darkness of the head and tail pattern in one image suggested better photos need to be obtained to rule out Cassin’s. Further images revealed the bird to be a Western, as reported, but it spotlighted some tail features that needed to be expounded upon should observers be faced with a fall, yellow-bellied kingbird.


Tropical (left two birds) and Western (right two birds). Yale Museum (Julian Hough). Note tail and wing color.


Note the greenish band across the breast in the two Tropicals (left) compared with the more extensive grey breast of the Westerns. The Tropicals also show a cleaner white throat. Also, note the pale edge to the tail feather of the rightmost tropical, but compare with the more broader, whiter outer web of the Westerns. From below, the dark charcoal-gray underside to the tail is darker than the pale gray of the Tropicals.

So, just because it has pale outer tail feathers it doesn’t automatically make it a Western (see the Mass individual). So what should you key into when you chance upon a distant yellow-bellied kingbird?

Tropical Kingbird, Panama, February (Julian Hough). Note the long, notched tail, not darker than the wings and long, hooked bill.

Tropical Kingbird, Panama, February (Julian Hough). Note the long, notched tail, not darker than the wings and long, stout bill. Note the obvious pale edges to the tail – easily could be mistaken for those shown by Western?

Western Kingbird, New Haven (same as title photo). Note broad white edge to the tail which is blackish and clearly darker than the wingtips (Julian Hough)

Western Kingbird, New Haven, CT (same as title photo). Note broad white edge to the tail which is blackish and clearly darker than the wingtips (Julian Hough)

  • Bill size and shape and tail seem to be the two main features to concentrate on.  Calls are also invaluable in separating kingbirds, so recording and/or a clear description of the call is important in identifying and documenting the record from a historical point of view.
  • Any yellow-bellied kingbird with a blackish tail that is darker than the wings, is either a Western or a Cassin’s.
  • Both Western and Cassin’s show whitish tail sides, but Cassin’s often lacks this and has pale tips to the tail forming a pale terminal band. They are typically more obvious and include the entire outer vane of the outer tail feather in Western. Sometimes in the field this may not be obvious, so continued observation of an individual may be required to determine the presence and amount of white in the tail.
  • Any kingbird that has a paler brownish tail, that is concolorous with the wings is likely a Tropical or Couch’s. Note that some Tropicals can show paler edges to the outer tail feathers, but this is narrower and less well-defined that Western. Tropicals in particular seem to show a disproportionately long and notched tail.
  • Tropical and Couch’s both show a long, broad and hooked bill tip, larger than either Western or Cassin’s but sometimes, bill size and shape can be hard to determine on lone individuals.
  • Cassin’s and Western have a smaller bill, but compared to Western, Cassin’s have a short, but deep-based bill, often with a curved culmen that gives the bill a stouter, more conical-appearance.

So, a distant kingbird that has an obvious blackish-tail, darker than the wingtips, should get you into the Cassin’s/Western camp and a bird that has a tail concolorous with the wingtips should get you thinking about Tropical/Couch’s.

Separating them from here requires more observation about plumage and how dark the grey areas are on the head, underpart color and tail pattern. This post isn’t meant for covering that in detail, but I found a similar and more in-depth look at this problem by Kevin McGowan here at

Northern Goshawks-problems and pitfalls

October 25, 2014

We are getting into that time of year where well-manned hawk watches begin to see the occasional Northern Goshawk. Here in Connecticut, they are a late migrant, generally occurring in late October into November – all reports are typically of juveniles and not adults (I’ve never seen an adult away from the breeding grounds in CT).

Our well-known, in-state watchpoints (Lighthouse Pt. and Quaker Ridge) are manned everyday, all day, at this time of year and there are few reports of Northern Goshawk. The math is simple. Goshawks are uncommon.

Goshawks are  big buteo-like birds, impressive to see both during the breeding season and on migration. They are also frequently misidentified. The time-honored identification pitfall being big Cooper’s Hawks –  it is these birds that you are likely to see  at Hawkwatches in September; in your backyard, attacking birds at your feeders; or just hanging out at Hammonasett in winter. Could you see a Northern Goshawk in September, in your backyard, or at Hammonasett in winter. Sure, it’s possible…but really, it’s just a big Cooper’s Hawk. CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE.


Juvenile Northern Goshawks (left) and Cooper’s Hawks (right) (Julian Hough). Large juvenile female COHA can be very similar to NOGO, but note the broader body, tail and wings of NOGO. Underpart markings are variable in both, but typically heavier, darker and more extensive in NOGO.

We’ve all made that mistake, been spooked initially by that huge female Coop’s, but when you finally see a Goshawk, it’s often a case of “You know it when you see it”.


Status of “Northern” Red-tailed Hawk in Connecticut

October 11, 2014

An adult  Red-tailed I photographed at Lighthouse Point, Ct on the 14th November 2011 was particularly well-marked that I mused about it having some Western influence. I admit I am not familiar enough with that race to know, but it was distinct enough from typical Eastern (borealis) Red-tails to be noticeable. I recently came across the photo while updating my file library and with some basic research it fits as a typical example of a “Northern” Red-tail, the so-called abeiticola. While not a recognized sub-species, these birds inhanit the boreal forests from Alberta east to Nova Scotia.

From left to right: juvenile Eastern (borealis), adult Northern (abeiticola) and adult Eastern (borealis) Red-tailed Hawks, Lighthouse Point, CT Oct/Nov.

From left to right: juvenile Eastern (borealis), adult Northern (abeiticola) and adult Eastern (borealis) Red-tailed Hawks, Lighthouse Point, CT Oct/Nov 2011. (Julian Hough)

Birds show overlap in many plumage traits, juveniles in particular being harder to pigeonhole as abeiticola than adults. Compared to borealis, they are generally darker-throated, have more densely marked belly bands due to more globular streaks and are often more buffy-toned on the underparts, particularly the upper breast.

These features are all noticeable on the CT bird, together with more lightly-marked secondaries and darker tips to the outer primaries, giving a more Broad-winged-like wingtip pattern (though I don’t believe this is a separating feature, it does stand out).

As  increased buteo migration through Lighthouse Point ramps up in October and November, hawkwatchers should look out for these birds so we can try and assess their occurrence compared with more typical Eastern birds.

Thanks to Jerry Liguori for discussion and comments.

Confusing Calidrid, Milford, CT July 16th 2006

July 28, 2014

I came across these photos I had saved in my “unknown” folder.  It is an adult bird that I came across while scouring through a big flock of Semi-ps.

It didn’t instantly stand out as anything I could put my finger on, except that it resembled both Semiplamated and White-rumped Sandpiper to me, but I don’t believe it either of those species. I considered the bird might be a hybrid, but the obvious one White-rumped x Dunlin doesn’t fit this bird, and if it is possibly a hybrid, does it looks more like White-rumped x Semiplamated Sandpiper?

I believe these images were digiscoped by Nick Bonomo. Although he did well to get any images, they are not of the highest quality but some key features can be seen.

Long-bodied, quite horizontal in stance with an attenuated body.

Bill, at least in one image looks quite long and fine-tipped.

Upperpart feathers and wing coverts dark-centered and pale-fringed and fairly uniform.

Off-white underparts with obvious and well-marked streaks.

Dark tail and rump in flight.


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The German harrier – some comments

January 21, 2014
HY male Northern Harrier, Milford, CT, USA (Julian Hough)

HY male Northern Harrier, Milford, CT, USA (Julian Hough)

So, after looking at the images, here’s my thoughts on this particular bird:
  • eye-crescents look too white and bulbous, especially toward the rear of the eye .
  • the nape is perhaps not as dark, or solid as I might like, even though it appears somewhat hooded at a distance
  • the streaking across the breast and along the flanks seems more in line with a young male, since females, generally from what I can gather, tend to be the less streaked. The streaking along the flanks seems well-marked, so that doesn’t mesh well with the age as a young female.
  • the color of the underparts looks fine for hudsonius.

Primary Barring

Females can show less bars and a wider middle secondary bar compared to males. Primary bars (excluding the dark tip) of 15 banded female Northerns in Cape May had the following:
  •  P9-7 varied on both male and female. Males averaged 6 bars (lowest 5, highest 7) while females averaged 5.6 bars (lowest 5, highest 8).

The German bird shows 4 bars on these feathers and thus fits better with Hen Harrier

Vent Pattern

One feature I need to look at is do juv Hen harriers often (always??) show dark-centered under tail coverts while hudsonius tend to have uniformly rufous vents (hair-like shaft streaks in young males, but not really visible in the field). This bird appears, from the images, to show a hudsonius-like vent, but again I am not sure based on my knowledge, if Hen Harriers frequently show this. Northern’s, as far as I have seen, never show dark, redpoll-like markings on the undertail coverts which makes the German bird better for hudsonius – or a hybrid? -than perhaps a Hen.
I often find I change my mind when re-examining images of these kinds of birds (!) and also wonder about a hybrid  possibility and whether that can be ruled out, especially if the under tail coverts in juv. (HY) Pallid and Montagu’s  are unstreaked and Hen’s are streaked. I do not go to the hybrid theory quickly, but the head pattern and underpart streaking strike me as odd for that age class of a putative hudsonius and overall fit better with Hen.
It is an interesting bird, but in my opinion doesn’t fit neatly the criteria for a vagrant Northern Harrier . Further in-depth info on Northern Harriers can be found here:
Thanks Ralph for the shots!

Interesting “orange” harrier in Germany

January 21, 2014
Ralph Aumueller kindly sent me these images of an interesting harrier.
“When we found the bird on jan. 5th, our initial impression was of a pallid harrier, an impression what we had to reject immediately as we found the bird five-fingered, broad winged and so on. So it´s a Hen Harrier of some kind, but ruling out hudsonicus causes us quite a headache.
Almost all id-features neatly fit in the pattern awaited for a Northern Harrier (hudsonius), but we are much too inexperienced with that taxon. We are aware, however, that the underwing-pattern seems not to suggest a hudsonicus, with the barring on the outer primaries at the very lower (too low?) end of its range of variability. Additionally the middle secondary bar seems to be to wide. However we found in the literature that females tend to show a more cyaneus-like pattern in this respect. So we really reached the point to need  the help of an expert on that topic. May I therefore kindly ask you for  your opinion on the bird´s id? That would be fantastic!
Best wishes,
S0, in light of the recent British and Irish records of vagrant Northern Harrier (C.c hudsonius), this bird seems quite striking and scary. What do others think of this bird and what would you call this if you saw it. Be interested to hear people’s opinions on this before I post my comments I had sent to Ralph.


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An interesting “Buff-bellied” pipit, Cheshire, UK, January 2014

January 14, 2014

American Buff-bellied Pipit (rubescens), Connecticut, USA, Jan 2008

A vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit (aka known as American Pipit or confusingly Water Pipit here in the US) is being seen at a coastal marsh in the north-western part of the UK. Buff-bellied Pipits, of the race japonicus, also occur in Asia and winter in the Middle East and this race and the Nearctic race rubescens show a great deal of variation and so separating these two in a vagrancy context may be difficult with some individuals.

While Buff-bellied Pipit, of the Nearctic race rubescens (American Buff-bellied Pipit) has occurred several times in Britain and Ireland, the Siberian race japonicus (Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit) has not, so it is worth noting the plumage features of any vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit to determine race.

Basically, the dumb-down cliff notes are that Siberian birds are:

  • pale-legged
  • rather pale below with a noticeable eyering
  • large, club-ended malar and streaked blackish below with rather tear-shaped spots/streaks.

American birds are:

  • darker-legged
  • rather plainer above,
  • being less streaked, more buff-below with rather more brownish, blurry streaking.

However, individual variation and wear and geographical variation across their ranges makes the “simple” criteria just mentioned somewhat useless in a vagrancy context, and identification is often easier if you are standing in Israel or Connecticut respectively!

The individual in Cheshire can be seen at (scroll down for the images if necessary) :

Initially, on a comment I posted on Martin Garner’s Birding Frontiers site I had thought the bird seemed fine for American Buff-bellied Pipit, but further photos seemed to show a bird with rather contrasting upper wingbar, rather large blobby malar and well-defined dark streaks on the underparts. I was cautious and wondered if the bird could be a Siberian Buff-bellied, but having no field experience of that race, I was in unchartered waters and wanted to add some caution to my initial support of the bird.

So, I dug up some pictures I had taken of a bird here in New Haven for comparison (see below) and also a link to Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit here:…f-bellied.html.

All three images, American Buff-bellied Pipit (rubescens), New Haven, CT, January 14th 2008.
Based on Pyle et al., 1987,  the pointed centres to the median coverts and the blurry, non-indented edges to the greater coverts makes this bird a first-winter (HY). The Cheshire bird is a first-winter by the same features.


3_rubescens_NewHaven_CT_Jan15th 1_rubescens_NewHaven_CT_Jan15th 2_rubescens_NewHaven_CT_Jan15thOverall a buff-brown bird, with non-contrasting wingbars and dull buff underparts. Underpart streaking is brown, not blackish and there is no pale contrasting eyering or large, dark, ‘blobby’ malar. Note the dark brown, not pale legs.

After reviewing images, and taking into consideration variability, with all things considered, the Cheshire bird is more likely American based on the overall plumage tones, plainer mantle and underpart color but it is certainly not straightforward. If the bird had been the rather white-below, heavily streaked Siberian birds, perhaps it would be easier, but since they vary so much, a vagrant may often be hard to assign to race.

American Buff-bellied’s have a distinctive, di-syllabic “pip-it”, “pip-it” calls that may help distinguish it from Siberian birds but I have no experience with that race.

A great educational bird that has generated some insightful discussions in the UK for those that want to read more on this bird:

October 28, 2013


Finally, in  what has been a lacklustre fall, I dragged my ass into the field to look for birds. A previously reported Lark Sparrow had been seen at Hammonassett State Park, CT so since that was still a nemesis bird in the state, I thought I would spend some time there and give it a go. A great spot for birding, I figured it would be a great place to spend a nice few hours in the field on a glorious fall morning.

Arriving at the spot, I was told it had been seen earlier feeding with some sparrows. I patiently waited and saw nothing. After everyone had disappeared, it suddenly appeared, feeding in the leaf litter in front of me. Unfortunately it was flushed by a cyclist and so good views were brief.

Quite a dapper bird!

Quite a dapper bird!

After a while the bird flew out of some conifers, giving it’s “tink-tink” call and flew across the campground. I followed it and soon relocated it feeding out on the grass. I went all Seal Team Six on it and belly crawled close..unfortunately it remained in the shade for over half an hour. At this point, just as I was going to need a chiropractor for my neck,  it shuffled into some sunlight for a few seconds and I managed a few shots.

Definitely a crippler as sparrows go!

Difficult to age in late fall since juvs moult mostly on the summer grounds and thus lose most of their tell-tale streaky plumage. Since moult in this species is quite complex between geographic populations, it means that fall birds are generally not easy to age on plumage and best aged by the shape of their tail feathers. These looked pointed in other images which would make it a HY (first-year).

Difficult to age in late fall since juvs moult mostly on the summer grounds and thus lose most of their tell-tale streaky plumage. Since moult in this species is quite complex between geographic populations, it means that fall birds are generally not easy to age on plumage and best aged by the shape of their tail feathers. These looked pointed in other images which would make it a HY (first-year).

Parasitic Jaeger, Cape May Point, 29th Sept 2013

October 10, 2013

While spending time in Cape May with my son, I stopped at the Magnasite Plant in the early evening of the 28th September 2013 to look for Northern Harriers and Merlins that often hunt at dusk in this area. I bumped into Jonathan Wasse and Peter Lansdown, visiting from the UK, and as we were chatting, Jonathan noticed a gull soaring over land and said “That Herring Gull is doing a good job imitating a skua (jaeger)”. Even distorted by the windshield, it didn’t look like a gull and immediately looked interesting and jaeger-like. Jumping out of the car, I snapped a few flight shots as the bird flew over us and drifted away towards Lily Lake. Clearly a juvenile Parasitic from the views we had and quite strange to see it circling over land.

That was the end of that…or so I thought. The following day, I arrived at the hawk watch at Cape May Point, when I was greeted with shouts of “Jaeger on the pond!” Indeed there was! A juvenile jaeger was sitting on the pond close to the platform. From the looks of it, it was the same bird we saw the evening before..and perhaps the same bird that had been seen briefly at the same spot the day before by the CMBO-appointed hawkwatcher Tom Reed.

Juvenile Parasitic Jaeger, Cape May Point, NJ, 9/29/2013 (Julian Hough)

Juvenile Parasitic Jaeger, Cape May Point, NJ, 9/29/2013 (Julian Hough)

The following features were typically pro-Parasitic:
  • Longish-spiky bill , not really stout with a dark-tip that appeared to be a 1/3 or so of the bill
  • Disproportionately small head, with streaky cheeks and a short, steep forehead. The slightly raised crown giving a more triangular-shaped head rather than a domed, rounded head
  • Overall warm cinnamon/nutmeg tones to the plumage, especially the pale upper part feathers and primary tips
  •  Prominent, chevron-shaped primary tips, tinged pale buff-brown, not white.
Identification of juvenile jaegers can be problematical, but the good views of this bird made for an easy identification as an intermediate-type juv. Darker, juvenile Parasitics can be difficult to separate from some dark juvenile Long-taileds. The pale-fringes to the primaries can be shown by both Parasitic and Long-tailed, so they are not diagnostic, but coupled with other features may be used as a supporting character. On some images, the pale fringes to the primaries in Long-tailed tend to be narrower and paler, while those on typical Parasitics, like the Cape May individual, are well-defined and chevron-like.
Overall a great bird to see and photograph!
"Crippling Views" - birders enjoying the unusual occurence of an "on-the-deck" Parasitic (Julian Hough)

“Crippling Views” – birders enjoying the unusual occurence of an “on-the-deck” Parasitic (Julian Hough)