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Swainson’s Thrush vs. Gray-cheeked Thrush

One migrant that I’m sure to see every spring are Swainson’s Thrush, usually in pretty good numbers. They typically start to show up in late April, with about a 3-4 week period where you might run into them. It’s pretty predictable where they can be found. They are usually seen foraging in the grass on the edge of the forest or some other wooded area. They’re always a little “on edge”, sticking close to that forest cover so they can dash into it at any sign of danger. Because of their behavior, they can be hard to photograph sometimes, but on the other hand, I’ve had a lot of chances over the years because they’re pretty common.

There are a few other thrush species they could potentially be confused with. Hermit Thrush is the first of the thrush species to migrate in the spring, but there still can be a few around by the time Swainson’s Thrush arrive. However, I’ve never had too much trouble differentiating Hermit Thrush from Swainson’s Thrush, as they have a rich, reddish-brown rump that easily makes it stand out (if seen well). Veery are another thrush species that migrates through the state (with some breeding in the Black Hills). They’re pretty uncommon, but even if they are seen here, their color is a much richer, warm, reddish brown, and they have less spotting on the undersides than a Swainson’s Thrush. I’ve never had difficulty identifying them either.

But there is one thrush species that can be difficult to differentiate from Swainson’s Thrush…the Gray-cheeked Thrush. One of the difficulties in differentiating the two species lies in their habits! Both have that tendency to hang out at the forest edge, in the shadow of the trees. Because they’re often seen in poor lighting conditions, it’s often difficult in field conditions to differentiate the two.

Gray-cheeked Thrush have also been something of a nemesis bird for me, from a photographic standpoint! I would estimate that at least 90% of the Swainson’s/Gray-cheeked Thrushes I’ve seen over the years have been Swainson’s (if not a higher percentage). Despite that, I HAVE seen and identified Gray-cheeked over the years, but until today I really didn’t have any good photos (or even any recognizable photos!). That problem was taken care of today at Newton Hills State Park, when I got photos of BOTH species in relatively good lighting.

The image below depicts Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes. Sure, it’s easy when they’re side by side, in good light! This is the exception rather than the rule, however. If you do have the opportunity to see them in good light, Gray-cheeked Thrushes are 1) Grayer in overall plumage, with few buffy or warm tones, 2) lack of any ring around the eye, and 3) a gray cheek (surprise!) with no warm tones on the face. Swainson’s Thrushes often appear “buffier” and more rich in color overall (although still nowhere close to as rich as a Veery), and have characteristic buffy tones on the face. They also have an obvious eye ring.

It’s all about getting a good look! If you’re having trouble identifying these species, and you can’t see the bird’s eye ring (or lack thereof), or if the lighting is poor and you can’t judge how “buffy” the face is…good luck! You’re on your own! But if you do get a chance to see one of these two species in good light, I hope the photos below and identification points above are of some help.

Gray-cheeked vs. Swainson's Thrush
Comparison of Gray-cheeked Thrush (left) and Swainson’s Thrush (right). One look at the head in this light is enough to distinguish the two species, as Gray-cheeked Thrush have a gray, dull cheek, a lack of warm tones around the head and face, and a lack of an eye ring. Swainson’s Thrush have the characteristic buffy tone on the face, and an obvious eye ring. The plumage overall has a warmer, richer appearance on the Swainson’s Thrush as well.

Add your biodiversity sightings to “iNaturalist” – Big Sioux Rec Area, Beaver Creek Nature Area

Banner page for a new iNaturalist “project” page, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area”. You can enter sightings of any form of life you find in the park boundaries, and iNaturalist will summarize those observations and provide an accounting of all life observed there.

Twitter is a dangerous thing for me. I’m relatively new to it, starting 2 years ago. But it’s rather addictive, and if I don’t curb myself I can spend far too much time on it. The good news…this weekend I spent very little time on Twitter, even going (gasp!) almost 36 hours without even looking at it. The bad news…it’s because Twitter itself got me hooked on another online activity.

When visiting the Black Hills a week ago, I took a number of flower and butterfly photos. I don’t really “do” butterflies and flowers, so didn’t know the ID of most, so I posted some blocks of photos on Twitter. People did help with ID, but I also got multiple suggestions to join iNaturalist. Now, I have done eBird for years, and greatly enjoy recording all of my bird sightings. iNaturalist is similar but expanded to…everything…all life that you wish to record, be it a bird, a reptile, a tree, a shrub, a bug, a fungi…anything. But unlike eBird, where you’re expected to know the species you’re entering, iNaturalist is also a platform for helping you to identify your finds. You upload a photo, identify as best you can, and other people confirm your identification, or offer a corrected identification. There’s a system in place where the “grade” for your entry depends upon matching IDs, with “Research Grade” ranking given to entries that have confirmed IDs from multiple users.

I have many, many thousands of photos over the years, mostly birds, but also other critters. I also have occasionally taken photos of flowers, fungi, and other life, but haven’t really given an ID to most. So instead of wasting time on Twitter this weekend, I spent FAR too much time entering old photos onto iNaturalist.

One feature I think is really cool about iNaturalist is that you can set up your own “project”. Your project can define an area where you can summarize observations. You can also select what taxa are part of your project. So for example, you could set up a project for your favorite birding spot, and do something like “The Birds of Newton Hills”. iNaturalist would then record ANY sighting of a bird, be it by yourself, or someone else, and summarize all the sightings of birds for that area. It’s all automated in that once the project is set up, it automatically records the sightings any one makes within your defined parameters (area, type of life, time of observation, etc.).

A cool concept! And since I admittedly get a little fatigued with bird photography, from the standpoint of taking photos of the “same old birds” (how many American Goldfinch photos do you need?), and since we live right across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, I thought why not start an iNaturalist project that records ALL life in the park? And so that’s what I’ve done, with a new iNaturalist project “Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area“. My other most visited birding location is Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 4 miles east of where I live. I started another project for Beaver Creek, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area“.

Join in if you’d like! If you ever visit either the Big Sioux Recreation Area or Beaver Creek Nature Area, just start taking photos of the plants, animals, fungi…whatever life you run across in those two parks. Join iNaturalist and record your sightings. You do need a photo, and you do need to include the location of the sighting. That’s easy if you use your cell phone for the photo (or if your camera has GPS), as the location will be automatically recorded when you take the photo, and uploaded automatically when you add the photo to iNaturalist. And…that’s it! If the sighting is recorded within the boundaries of those two parks, it will automatically be added to these “projects”.

And don’t worry if you don’t know the identification of the plant or animal! That’s the point of iNaturalist. It will offer an initial suggestion based on your photo (most of the time the suggestions are very good!), and others will chime in and offer their 2 cents on ID.

I don’t need another online hobby, but…this one is a bit different! Not only did I end up starting these two iNaturalist “projects” this weekend, but each day I ended up taking long walks through the Big Sioux Recreation Area, going very slowly, and taking photos of a lot of the plants and insects I came across. It’s an online time sucker, but…it’s also an exercise routine in a way! So it all balances out. ūüôā

Give it a try and start entering your sightings! But beware, it’s fun, but a bit addictive. Here are the links again to the two iNaturalist projects I set up:

Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area

Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area

ID Challenge (for me!) – Glaucous vs. Iceland Gull

OK, I admit it. I often don’t have the patience to scan through large flocks of gulls to find the “oddball”, the one that ISN’T the seemingly ever-present Ring-billed Gull (here in South Dakota). Sometimes, however, you see something that’s clearly so different than you can’t help but notice. That was the case yesterday near Pierre, South Dakota, when I saw a large, nearly all white gull sitting on the ice.¬† My first thought when seeing the bird from a distance…Iceland Gull, since recent bird reports had frequently mentioned an Iceland Gull being seen in the area. At first glance, that seemed to “fit”.¬† However, as one who isn’t well-versed in the dark art (I’m think of you Ricky Olson!!) of multi-age gull discrimination…I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t until I got home, downloaded the photos, and did some sleuthing¬† where I think I can safely call this an immature (probably 2nd winter), quite pale Glaucous Gull. Why?

Immature Glaucous and Iceland Gulls both share some characteristics that were evident in this bird. 1) Pale overall, including pale wingtips without markings. 2) two-toned bill. 3) pink legs.¬† However, when looking at Sibley’s and online resources, it’s clear the bird has characteristics of a Glaucous Gull.¬† First…the bird’s size.¬† There were a handful of Ring-billed Gulls around, and this bird was clearly larger. Much larger. Iceland Gulls are larger than Ring-billeds, but Glaucous Gulls are MUCH larger. With the distance between the Ring-billed Gulls and this gull, it was a bit difficult to judge, but it really did look a much, much larger bird than the Ring-billed Gulls.

Secondly…the head. From this excellent site (South Dublin Birds), it’s noted Glaucous Gulls have a large, flat-topped head, while Iceland Gulls have a more delicate looking, rounded head. This bird clearly has the head shape of a Glaucous. Also…that site is the only one I found that notes a “tertial step”…a clear angle where the tertial feathers on wings meet the primaries when the wing is folded as in the first photo below. Here, you definitely see a clear “step” down where the tertials meet the primaries. Finally, the bill. Young Glaucous and Iceland Gulls both may share a two-toned bill such as this, but the Glaucous Gull has a heavy, longer bill, with parallel top and bottom edges. The Iceland Gull has a much more delicate and smaller looking bill.¬† ¬†The bill on this bird is quite large and shaped as a Glaucous.

So my final call…a first- or second-winter (probably second), very pale Glaucous Gull. Darker juveniles often have a lot of brownish speckling. This bird has a very small amount of that, primarily near the tail. Given that Glaucous Gulls gradually lose that speckling and it’s mostly gone by the third year, my guess is its a second-year bird that’s lost most of the speckling.¬† Third winter birds generally already have the pale gray mantle of an adult Glaucous Gull. This bird clearly doesn’t have that yet, so it can’t be a 3rd year or adult bird.

In short…the bird looks very similar to the Sibley drawing of a 2nd-winter Glaucous Gull (Page 220 of my Sibley’s guide!).

There…that wasn’t so painful! And it was kind of an interesting challenge to ID. Perhaps next time I come across a flock of gulls, I’ll pay a little more attention and do some similar sleuthing!

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

A large, pale gull found near Pierre, South Dakota. Given that others had reported an Iceland Gull in the area, that was must first thought. But upon getting home and seeing the photos in detail, I’m pretty sure now this is a very pale, immature Glaucous Gull. Reasons…1) The heavy two-toned till, with top and bottom roughly parallel. Immature Iceland Gulls also can have a two-toned bill like this, but it’s smaller and more delicate. 2) Head shape…large, flat topped. Iceland Gulls heads are more rounded and smaller looking. 3) “Tertial Step” – an ID characteristic where there’s a distinct “step” where the tertial feathers meet the primaries (unlike Iceland).

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

With wings spread, you can see the complete lack of markings on the wings. However, the pale wings, pink legs, and brownish mottling (VERY pale and not widespread on this bird) can be found on both Iceland and Glaucous Gull.

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

Another photo of the bird taking flight, showing the unmarked wings (again, characteristic of both Iceland and Glaucous).

Differentiating Female (and male) Goldfinch Species

I was on travel for work this week which mean any blogging or work on my website was delayed. When I returned, I had an email that was thanking me for my “Difficult Bird ID” page, where you can find information on differentiating between commonly confused species. There was also a request to add another page, discussing how to tell apart the three North American goldfinch species. I don’t normally think of goldfinches as a particularly difficult group to identify, but then again, here in eastern South Dakota, we only have the one species. Overall, geography is obviously a huge part of identifying goldfinches, as in the eastern half of the country, the only species of goldfinch you’ll find are American Goldfinch.¬† However, if you happen to find yourself in parts of the southwestern US, you have three goldfinch species you may potentially encounter, with Lesser Goldfinch and Lawrence’s Goldfinch join the party.

The woman who sent the email lived in California and specifically was trying to figure out how to easily identify female goldfinches. That does represent more of a challenge than differentiating male goldfinches, and given that my Difficult Bird ID pages are some of the most visited pages on my entire website, I thought tonight I would go ahead and create another page that talks about ID keys for the three species.

As with many “difficult” IDs, for birders I think that difficulty melts away with experience, particularly when given keys to look for.¬† Creating a page such as this helps me as well!¬† I don’t run into Lesser Goldfinch, for example, unless I travel, but I don’t know if I could have identified a female goldfinch as either Lesser or American in the areas they overlap in range, until creating this page. Now I’ll know what to look for (bill color, and undertail covert color are giveaways).

A bit of a pain to create these pages, but as I said, they are frequently visited.  Click below for the new Goldfinch ID page.

Identifying North American Goldfinch Species

Identifying Goldfinch Species (female)

Females of the three North American goldfinch species. Males in breeding plumage? Piece of cake. A little bit harder for the females (particularly American and Lesser), but not bad when you know what to look for.

Pondering Petrified Wood

Human beings are funny creatures. When we see something, we immediately want to categorize it.¬† For a birder, identifying and tallying species is a huge part of the hobby. For my work as a scientist working with satellite imagery, my task is to categorize the types of land cover (cropland, urban, deciduous forest, etc.) on the earth’s surface.¬† For a rockhound?¬† I’m struggling with identification as a rockhound newbie, just as I did 20 years ago when I was a birding newbie.

Petrified wood is one category of material I thought was easy to identify. When I’m out on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, there is a LOT of petrified wood lying around. By that, I mean there’s a lot of easily identifiable pieces that look exactly LIKE wood, with obvious grain patterns.¬† But as with anything in life, it’s not that easy.¬† Below are some of the obvious, and not so obvious pieces I’ve found on the Grasslands. Thoughts? Are all of these petrified wood?

Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

First, an obvious piece of petrified wood. This is what I find the most of…gray exterior pieces with clear grain patterns, some of which are so detailed they look like fresh pieces of wood.

Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Another obvious one. Both of these first two pieces have also been tumble polished to a nice shine.

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

And this piece? This is the most colorful piece I’ve found, for something that’s possibly petrified wood. You certainly see a linear “grain” running throughout. Petrified wood? Perhaps an agatized petrified wood?

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

Same piece as above, except on the flip side. Again, you see the grain pattern throughout.

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A less obvious one. The photo doesn’t show it as clearly as what you see through a loupe, but there are rough “grain” patterns. They’re more little streaky nodules all oriented the same direction. I know there’s petrified palm that can be found in this area, but I don’t know what exactly the palm looks like from this area.

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

A similar one, with little linear nodules lined up in the same orientation like a wood grain (again, a bit hard to see in this photo).

Potential Petrified Wood - Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, South Dakota

The photo of this piece does a better job showing the type of “grain” seen in the previous two pieces as well. Obvious, and all oriented in the same direction.

Telling the difference between hawks (Buteos)

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

When this guy flew by and I took photos, what first came to mind was dark-phase of a Rough-legged Hawk. It’s actually a dark-phase Ferruginous Hawk. The vast majority of Ferruginous Hawks that you run across are light phase, so this guy is a perfect example of how confusing it can be sometimes to identify Buteo hawk species.

As I look through visitor stats for my main website, one of the sections that is visited the most is a “Difficult ID’s” section. ¬†That actually surprised me a bit, given that it’s a fairly small part of the website, and not a section that I’ve revised for quite some time. ¬†The section is devoted to helping birders differentiate between certain species that tend to be difficult to identify, with photos, identification tips, key plumage characteristics, and other information. ¬†I only had 10 different classes of birds that it helped to differentiate…thus my surprise to see how many visitors those pages get. ¬†For the first time in probably 7 or 8 years, I updated several of those pages, providing more detailed identification keys, new photos, and range maps to help people see where and when certain species are likely to be present. I also started to think about other species that birders may have trouble identifying.

As I was going through my photos from my day-long trip to central South Dakota to look for winter raptors, one bird had me stumped. ¬†It was a dark-plumaged bird that I originally was sure was a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk. ¬†After processing the photos, however, it became clear that it was actually a dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk, a color morph I just haven’t run across very often. ¬†Given the variability between the different “Buteo” Hawk species, and given the variability WITHIN a single species in terms of plumage differences between different color morphs, and between adult and juvenile birds, what better addition to the “Difficult ID’s” pages than a very detailed description of how to tell apart Buteo hawks? ¬†I’ve just uploaded the following new page:

How to differentiate between “Buteo” Hawk species

On these pages, I’ve restricted myself to the more common Buteo species that are found in South Dakota and the U.S. as a whole. The more rare or geographically restricted species, such as Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, or Short-tailed Hawk, were excluded, so the page could concentrate on the more common species in the U.S. ¬†Species included are Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawk.

For these 6 species I have several pieces of information to assist birders in identification challenges. ¬†That of course include photos that offer a variety of angles, color morphs, bird ages, etc., as well as identification keys and species range maps. ¬†The Buteo Hawk page is undoubtedly the most comprehensive of the “difficult ID’s” pages that I’ve put together to date…I hope that people find it helpful!

Given how much attention those pages are getting, I will likely add new categories of “difficult ID’s” in the coming weeks. If you have any suggestions, let me know! ¬†In the meantime, here are the other species groups that are offered on the difficult ID’s page:

Birds & the Bees – Identification challenges

Carpenter Bee species

A (new favorite!) photo of a Carpenter bee on a bloom. The species of Carpenter Bee? Uh…WHOA…would you look at the time…uh…I gotta run, I’ll catch up to you later!!

When I started photography 15 years ago and started shooting birds, I knew absolutely nothing about my subject matter. ¬†Species identification? ¬†Hah! ¬†For the first several months I was constantly bugging my friend Jim at work with identification questions, showing him photo after photo while he patiently helped me identify birds. ¬†After this much time, I’ve photographed most birds you could expect to find in South Dakota, and I have very little trouble identifying birds from sight or from a photo (by ear is another matter…).

It did take a while though to become proficient in bird identification. ¬†After all, there are about 430 species that have been seen in South Dakota. ¬†Now as I’m getting into macro photography, i”m having the same issue with insects and spiders, but the magnitude of the problem is MUCH worse! ¬†In the continental U.S. and Canada, there have been over 900 different bird species sighted, including many stray birds, and many pelagic birds you’d never see unless you were off the coast some distance. ¬†In the U.S. alone, there are over 4,000 BEE SPECIES ALONE!!! Many insect species are also differentiated from each other by only very small ID keys. In other words…it’s DAMNED hard to nail many insects down to a given species.

I’m not satisfied taking a bird photo, but not knowing the exact species. ¬†With macro photography and insects…I’m going to HAVE to be satisfied in most cases not knowing the exact species, but perhaps only arriving at the basic genus that species belongs to. ¬†The photo above of a Carpenter Bee (I think!!) is a good example. ¬†There are over 500 species of Carpenter Bees worldwide. .But as soon as I took this photo and looked at it on my screen yesterday, I knew it was instantly one of my favorite ¬†photos!

And that’s going to have to be good enough, as I may NEVER know the exact species shown here…

Short- vs. Long-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher vs. Long-billed Dowtitcher

Which kind of Dowitchers are these? Click to get a much higher-resolution version.

Alright, I admit I have no freakin’ clue how to tell apart Short-billed Dowitchers vs. Long-billed Dowitchers. ¬†I DID find this great website:

http://www.surfbirds.com/ID%20Articles/dowitchers1005/dowitchers.html

More info than you can shake a stick at! ¬†But I’m still not sure that it helps me. ¬†Given that I live in South Dakota, where we’re much, much more likely to find Long-billed Dowitchers, I have pretty much always called Dowitchers I take photos of here Long-billed Dowitchers. ¬†But over the years, I also have no doubt I’ve seen, if not photographed, Short-billed Dowitchers.

So, tonight I was birding around Newton Hills State Park, and came across a group of 15 Dowitchers. ¬†Long- or Short-billed? ¬†Check out the photo above. ¬†What are they? ¬†All Long-billed? ¬†A mix? ¬†Bill length, as expected, is one of the ID marks in the SurfBirds article above. ¬†Check out the 2 birds with an “A” by them. ¬†The one on the left has a much longer billl than the one on the right. ¬†Leg length is supposed to be another mark, with Long-billed Dowitchers having longer bills. ¬†Again check out the birds labeled “A”. ¬†The one on the right has the water reach his belly, while the birds right around him have leg showing. ¬†Same for the one bird in the back by the “B”, where one bird has water reaching the belly, and the other two don’t.

The SurfBird site has many more ID keys, such as a supposedly straighter supercillium on the Long-billed, but even on their example images I find that hard to see.  Plumage differences and shape differences are noted there as well.  Any thoughts out there? What are the Dowitchers in this photo?

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