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Ode to the Black Tern

I’ve done more birding in the last 2 weeks than I’ve done in a long time, trying to take advantage of what normally is the peak migration time here for warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the warblers, shorebirds, and other migrants that they’re supposed to be, you know…migrating. It’s been pretty slow for many things, but I’ve still had a great time. One bird that definitely got the message about migration time are Black Terns, as I’ve run into dozens upon dozens as they forage over many of the lakes, ponds, and wetlands in the area.

Last night I was at Grass Lake in far western Minnehaha County, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setup for taking photos of what can be a difficult bird to photograph. The light was at my back, the wind was gusting and keeping many birds in a near hovering position, and I was perched on an elevated road that allowed me to be level or even shooting down on the birds as they fed. It led to some shots I really like…augmenting a gallery of quite a few Black Tern photos I like. For some species, building such a gallery comes rather easy, as the birds are cooperative (sitting still and not flying away certainly helps), and have plumage patterns and colors that make them easy to photograph.

That has NOT been the case with Black Terns. I do have some shots of them sitting on a log or other perch, but most of the time when you see them, they’re in flight, and they have a bouncy, unpredictable flight path as they forage for food. Their coloring is another challenge. A bird in breeding plumage has jet black feathering on the head and underneath, while other feathering is silvery to nearly white, making it very difficult to expose correctly. If you have poor light or the bird is backlit, it’s generally not even worth bothering, as the bird will show up as a dark, featureless smudge.

The conditions all came together last night though! With as happy as I was with the photos from last night, I was going to dust off my bird haiku “skills” (questionable as though they may be), given I haven’t done a haiku for awhile. But it’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I don’t have it in me. So instead here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Black Tern photos over the years.

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
A photo from last night. A full breeding plumage Black Tern, in flight, a good exposure that keeps some detail in the blacks (and allows you to see the eye) while not blowing out the silvery upperparts…I was quite happy to get this one! It immediately becomes not only one of my favorite Black Tern photos, but one of my favorite photos overall. May 16th, 2019 – Grass Lake, Minnehaha County, South Dakota
DEFINITELY one of my all-time favorites. The wings may not be in the position I’d prefer, but this has the best exposure of any Black Tern photo I’ve gotten, with quite a lot of detail in the blacks and a great look at that eye. Having a great green bokeh background is nice as well. From May 14th, 2016 in Minnehaha County, South Dakota
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Sometimes you do get a photo opportunity of one sitting still! You still have to have the right lighting to get a good exposure of that black and silver plumage though. The lighting gods were favorable though on this day, with a nice perch, a nice little head turn and pose, and a good look at that gorgeous plumage. Taken May 14th, 2010 at Lake Whitewood in South Dakota.
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Until last night, I didn’t think I’d ever get a top-down, Black Tern in flight photo that I’d like more than this one. But I like last night’s better. This is still one of my favorites though, taken May 14th, 2010 at Lake Whitewood in South Dakota.
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Sometimes it’s less about the bird itself, than the overall composition. Four breeding plumage Black Terns may not be compelling, but I loved the composition here, with the perch cutting through most of the frame, and the blue water as a back drop. From May 17th, 2013 at Lake Thompson, in Kingsbury County, South Dakota

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).

Who says blackbirds are boring?

It’s been a busy weekend catching up on projects around the house, but I did take advantage of the cool, crisp morning to get out and bird. It wasn’t a great morning. I did come across some migrant warblers, including Canada and Black-throated Green, two I don’t see all that often, but overall it was pretty slow. One thing you do see this time of year though are mixed flocks of blackbirds gathering, and I came across several on the way home. I do sometimes stop to scan them for “goodies” like Rusty Blackbirds, but alas, no Rusty’s this morning.

However, I did stop and watch the biggest flock for a while, and grabbed the camera. Like many birders and bird photographers, I tend to take certain birds for granted, but there really are some beautiful plumage patterns on fall blackbirds here. The flock was primarily Common Grackles, but there were a number of Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and European Starlings mixed in.

By the time I got home, I considered the morning a disappointment, as I didn’t think I really got any really nice photos. Once I started downloading and processing photos, though, my attitude changed. These birds aren’t exactly the poster-child for “coveted” birds for birders (or photographers), but there are certainly some gorgeous colors and patterns on these birds. The fall plumage of a young Red-winged Blackbird, and the non-breeding plumage of a European Starling, are both wonderful in terms of the intricate patterns. Blackbirds, boring?  I think I may have changed my tune after this morning.

European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris

Non-breeding plumage European Starling. Probably one of the least-liked birds in North America, given their non-native status and tendency to compete for nesting sites with native birds. But after being here for nearly 140 years…they’re established. They’re not going anywhere. They’re “ours”. And damn it, they are DARNED attractive birds.

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula

Common Grackles ARE native…but for those of us who feed birds in our yards, they may have a worse reputation than European Starlings. They’re pigs! They drive away other birds! In my yard, I’ve seen them kill and consume young fledglings. But…that iridescence, those colors…they are striking birds in the right light.

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

Red-winged Blackbirds may be the most common bird in the state in the summer. I do like the plumage of the young birds, with this young male starting to show a bit of what will be his trademark red shoulder patch.

 

Photo Haiku – The Literate Pheasant

Ring-necked Pheasant - No Hunting

Probably my favorite photo of all time. This was taken near Presho, South Dakota, on a cold winter’s day. The sun was just rising, when I came over a hill and saw this male Ring-necked Pheasant on the fence. To my surprise he didn’t immediately fly, but stayed in the perfect position while I took several photos. The pose…the light…the setting…and of course, the “no hunting” sign…I couldn’t have staged a better photo set up myself. What better photo to inspire a haiku…

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

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.

POTD – Costa’s Hummingbird with splash of pollen

Today I worked out in the back yard. All. Day. Long.  I’m beat, but got a lot done, and it was a nice day. A bonus…it was nice seeing all the birds coming to my feeders, including a still very active hummingbird feeder.

This is my yearly, gloomy post, focusing on the fact that my hummingbirds are about to leave me for, oh…8 months. The males already are slipping away, as most of the birds I now get are females and young. I have about 4 more weeks before they all disappear.

But this year shall be different! I refuse to go 8 months without seeing a hummingbird!  We are taking a family vacation this winter to Arizona, and while it’s not exactly prime hummingbird season in either variety or number, there are still plenty of hummingbirds around at that time of year. Today’s POTD is a Costa’s Hummingbird who obviously had just fed, from Madera Canyon in Arizona in November 2011.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

Sure about that bird ID? Maybe it’s just dyed!!

Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus

This is a red-shafted Northern Flicker, found in central South Dakota. One tell-tale characteristic…the reddish color visible here under the tail. The gray face, and red “mustache” are also characteristic of the red-shafted color phase. Scientists have found that thanks to pigments within berries of invasive honeysuckles, some yellow-shafted flickers found in the eastern United States are in effect dying their own plumage through their diet, confusing birders who spot reddish-tinged birds.

A cool story that explains some odd-looking birds that you may come across!  South Dakota is in the middle of the country as far as “western” and “eastern” birds are concerned.  That’s great from a birding perspective, as we can often encounter species from both sides of the continent. Northern Flickers are a species that can be seen across the state, but given our geographic location, the “red-shafted” color phase (with salmon coloring under their wings) is the kind most often seen in the western part of the state, while the “yellow-shafted” (yellow underwings) is the one most often seen in the eastern part of the state.   Besides the color under their wings and tail, head markings and facial colors also differ between the two color phases.  Throughout the state, you may see intermediate phase birds, with characteristics of both phases.

A new study finds a confounding factor for identifying red-shafted vs. yellow-shafted Northern Flickers. In the eastern U.S., birders have sometimes spotted Northern Flickers with curiously reddish underwings and plumage.  Up until now, the assumption had been that some of the genetic make-up of the western red-shafted flickers must have been finding its way into the eastern U.S.  However, this study found that the issue isn’t genetics, but an invasive plant!

There are two species of an invasive honeysuckle that produce berries with reddish pigment.  This new research finds that “reddish” birds in the eastern U.S. don’t have the genetic components of red-shafted flickers, but instead have high levels of pigment from ingested honeysuckle berries.  In effect, the birds are dying their own plumage if their diet includes the invasive berries!

As the story notes, it’s not just Northern Flickers, but also Cedar Waxwings that sometimes have odd plumages due to the honeysuckle pigments. It’s another great example how a human influence, and the introduction of invasive species, can interact with native species in ways we can’t even imagine.

Revisiting Dowitcher Identification

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus

Photo of a Short-billed Dowitcher. At least now, after 15 years, I’m finally making a call that this is one, given the advice of several folks. Click for a larger view.

Ok, after much debate and consulting with other folks, I think I have a better handle now on identification of Short-billed Dowitchers vs. Long-billed Dowitchers. It’s still not an easy call, but after 15 years of birding, I’d never mentally/physically “checked off” Short-billed Dowitcher on my life list.  Long-billed Dowitchers are the ones that are more often found in fresh water areas, and are more often found on the interior of the continent, and until this point, I’d just mentally called any Dowitcher I saw in South Dakota as a Long-billed.

I’m now adding Short-billed Dowitcher to my list, based on the top photo here and the advice of several folks.  I had a photo of about 10 different Dowitchers, but this is the one (a crop of the photo showing 10 birds) that most people pointed to as being most clearly a Short-billed Dowitcher  What’s interesting is that opinions varied as to why, but the ID points hit the ID points provided in the exhaustive SurfBirds page on Dowitcher identification.  For this bird, ID keys are the following:

 

  • V-shaped lower coverts with white running up the sides of the feather more than a Long-billed Dowitcher.  Long-billed Dowitcher lower coverts are described as more “squared off”, with white that doesn’t run up the side of the feather a bit.
  • Droop in last 1/3rd of the bill.  You definitely see that on this bird.  I’m not totally sold on this ID mark though, as I’ve seen conflicting information online about whether this is diagnostic.
  • Primary projection.  Short-billed Dowitchers are supposed to have slightly longer wings, and have primaries that extend out from the tertials more. This guy has long primaries.
  • Slimmer shape than a Long-billed Dowitcher.  I forget whether I read it or whether it was an ID key someone sent me, but supposedly Long-billed Dowitchers are chunkier looking, with the description being that they look like they “swallowed a grapefruit”. In terms of shape/structure, this also results in a straighter back for the supposedly slimmer Short-billed Dowitcher, while in profile a Long-billed Dowitcher has a kink/dip/indentation in the back towards the tail.
  • “Arched” supercilium. This is a mark from the SurfBirds article online, and there are also other sites that note Long-billed Dowitchers seem to have a straighter, less steep slope on the forehead than Short-billed Dowitchers. The result is supposedly a straighter supercilium on a Long-billed, with a Short-billed Dowitcher having the “arch” in the supercilium shape.
  • Light looking underparts with modest barring/spots.  Hard to see in this angle, but the bird does seem to be relatively light-colored underneath, with lighter/white areas.  Long-billed Dowitchers are supposed to be more uniform and colorful below.

 

Dowitcher Tails in Flight

Three dowitcher tails captured while in flight. Black-and-white barring thickness is supposed to be diagnostic for Dowitchers, with Short-billed Dowitchers having wider white bars than Long-billed Dowitchers

One other potential difference between the two species is the width of the black-and-white barring in the tail (visible in flight).  As this group of birds flew by at one point, I did get a (rather bad) photo that captured parts of 6 birds. For Long-billed Dowitchers, the black bars in the tail are supposed to be significantly thicker than the white bars.  For Short-billed Dowitchers, the white bars are wider, and can be as wide as the black bars.  This 2nd photo shows the 3 tails captured in that bad flight photo.  To me, the white bars in that bottom photo are definitely wider than the white bars in the top 2 photos.  I of course have no idea which bird may be the wading bird depicted in the top photo, but it could be possible 2 of these 3 birds are Long-billed Dowitchers, and the bottom one is Short-billed.

I also find it interesting how the relationship between leg length and tail differs between the top 2, and the bottom image.  In the bottom image, the legs appear to stick out further from the tail than in the top 2 photos.  It could just be the poor quality of the photo, or the fact that in the bottom bird, the tail isn’t fanned out as much.  But Long-billed Dowitchers ARE supposed to a have a longer tail than Short-billed Dowitchers.  Could that be while the tail seems to cover more of the legs and feet int he top two birds, compared to the bottom one?

Whew.  If you take just one of any of the ID keys above, there’s no way I’d make a call, particularly on my own.  But given the “match” of several different ID keys, and given the opinions of others, I’m (finally) comfortable calling the bird in the top photo a Short-billed Dowitcher.

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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