Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Death Of The Mystery Bird

In the age of the internets, birders can communicate and share photographs like never before, which along with digital photography has lead to a dramatic jump in the prevalence of "mystery birds" over the past several years. To label a bird as a mystery bird, of course, is simply just a way of saying you are unable to identify a particular bird. Nowadays, listservs, forums and facebook groups are awash in these things. I do like weighing in on these anonymous birds from time to time, despite the plethora of horrible photographs to wade through. The most infamous realm of the Mystery Bird is the ID-FRONTIERS listserv, which consists of birders willing to slit throats over such fascinating issues as the amount of expected wear on the lesser coverts of a molt-retarded 3rd-cycle Herring X Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid in July (that occurred out of normal range, but not in a completely questionable location)...which is all well and good of course, but I don't always have the stomach for such in-depth and brain-numbing semantics. That's more of The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive's thing.

Since I am, as you know, our great nation's Number 7 birder, it's not difficult to weigh in on the mystery birds that surface here and there throughout the internets. It's fun to debate birds, and gives everyone a chance to learn something. BB&B is very pro-birducation of course, so I do my best to keep it real. I do admit to being wrong one (1) time of late, when an outranking birder whose name rhymes with "Benn Baufman" correctly nailed down a sparrow that I could not. All hail!

Over the past few years of checking out these Birds of Mystery, certain patterns begin to emerge that I think are representative of the challenges that birders throughout the U.S. and Canada often face. So, now, I give to you, The Final Guide to Identifying Mystery Birds. Chances are, if you've only been addicted to birds for a few years or less, the fuzzy, blurry, anonymous bird you have a picture of will be pictured or mentioned somewhere in this post. You are welcome.

The bird groups that people seem to struggle with the most are flycatchers, sparrows, buntings, warblers and shorebirds. Surely seabirds and gulls have surely crippled many a birder as well (I'm still working on my degree in International Storm-petrel Studies), but I can't argue with Pure Statistics.

And now...your mystery birds are revealed.

Is your mystery bird yellow? Is it a warbler? Good chance it's a Yellow Warbler. They don't look like this in fall, so don't expect them to. Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, ND.

See a weird sparrow? it a Song Sparrow? Song Sparrows are one of the champion sparrows for confusing people. Like Yellow Warblers, they are more variable than people think, with a staggering 24 subspecies in the U.S. That is more than any other North American bird! Amazingly, 11 of these breed in California, with 4 other subspecies occurring in winter. Point Reyes, CA.

Western Wood-Pewee. People are terrible at identifying flycatchers (I don't blame them), in particular both species of wood-pewee. Lack of eyering and long primaries make it easy though, and the dull wingbars help as well. Advanced birders struggle with vagrant pewees (a Western in Eastern Wood-Pewee range, and vice versa); for silent birds, I see no end in sight to this problem. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA.

Willow Flycatchers are equally notorious for confusing birders, since they resemble both wood-pewees and Alder Flycatchers, and can also be confused for other Empidonax. Some birders are under the false impression that Willows never have eyerings (which they can, particularly in the east), which makes it even messier. But lets face it, this genus stems from its own special circle of Birder Hell. Port Hueneme, CA.

Common Terns seem to be the Most Mysterious Tern. Probably because they can turn up anywhere on the continent, and that they are frustratingly similar to Forster's, Arctic and Roseate Terns. Ormond Beach, Port Hueneme, CA.

Looking at people's "mystery shorebirds", Least Sandpiper wins the award for our Most Mysterious Sandpiper, despite the fact it is our only peep with yellow legs. Being tiny, their name is a good clue as well. Just the other day a local birder reported 4 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers at a marsh...can you guess what they were? San Diego River, San Diego, CA.

Tennessee Warbler. In spring they look like vireos, in fall they can still look like vireos, as well as a number of other warbler species. An understandably confusing bird for fledgling birders. Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, ND.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Despite being practically the only "eastern" hummingbird, they somehow continue to confuse birders within their normal range. A great example is one in Maryland that was recently reported as a Magnificent Hummingbird. We know this to be the case because the photos show a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Sadly, a number of birders attempted to chase this staggering rarity in vain. Chavarrillo, Veracruz, Mexico.

Savannah Sparrow ("Belding's" subspecies pictured). Savannah Sparrows are hard for people to come to terms with, but with a massive range and a number of different and probably incorrectly described subspecies, this is understandable. Streaky sparrow give you brain freeze? Think about these duders, whether in a coastal marsh or open grasslands...yellow lores are a giveaway. Imperial Beach, CA.

Chipping Sparrows. People recognize them in their summer duds, but not as a grotesque juvenile or basic-plumaged bird. Juvenile Spizella can be nightmarish to identify for many a birder, but Chipping is (arguably) the easiest to identify in this streaky state. Point Reyes, CA.

Common Yellowthroat, by my calculations, is the Most Common Mystery Bird Of All Time. Female, juvenile, and hatch year birds of both sexes get misidentified for all sorts of other warblers. And yes, despite the tens of thousands I have seen by now, I still don't have a good photo of embarrassing! Tijuana River Valley, CA.

Are none of these species your mystery bird? Are you sure? Well, it seems that Magnolia Warbler, Indigo Bunting, Swainson's Thrush, Western and Baird's Sandpipers, juvenile Verdin and Brown-headed Cowbird all turn up frequently as mystery birds. You should consider them in your quest for The Final ID.

I should remind birders to use their field guides to their fullest...i.e. don't just look at the pictures, read the text and range maps. It's good stuff, I swear. That makes all of this a lot easier.

There you go. Case closed. No more mystery birds, ever again. Rejoice, and bask in wisdom and knowledge!


  1. You're a scholar and a gentleman Seagull Steve. How kind it was of you to publish this benevolent dis-ambiguification guide. I am glad to say I do not think any of my embarrassing mystery birds have turned up on this list, since I usually assume that what I', seeing is the most common available, but I've still had plenty of gaffs.

    No Rufous-morph Cassin's Sparrow on here? : )

    I heard about the Magnificent Ruby-throate through the Facebook, and the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is pretty funny (also, outrageous and tragic) too. In other news, hundreds of Goshawks are still turning up breeding in central Tucson every day.

    1. The Assumption of Abundance is critical I think. If everyone thought "What is this weird bird? Its probably super common", these mystery things would probably get sorted out a lot quicker.

  2. I don't do well with empids, they just confuse the stuffing out of me. I do well with shorebirds so I guess that makes up for my empidus nonifdentificus, maybe it is in my genes.

  3. When shooting from the hip I once, unironically, called a big Accip in the wilds of Tucson a Northern Goshawk.

    Then two seconds later when I realized what I had done, I felt great shame.

  4. I just list 10 to 15 birds that I think it might be and hope someone picks the correct one for me. I've learned that even though people look and talk like experts in the field, they aren't always right. Hey, at least I know the difference between an osprey and an eagle.

    Great insight though that you have listed.

    1. Beware false experts. But once you are familiar with local birders, you will get to know pretty quickly who the reliable observers are. Thats not as easy online.

      Why 10 to 15? A few more minutes of study and you could cut those numbers in half.

  5. I see what you did. You went through my blog to see all the birds I've butchered (I DID used to hate them and all) and then made a post about it. You left out the time I reported like 7 Golden Eagles at Ridgefield but they were just all 1st or 2nd year Bald Eagles.

    Now back to empids- I've got one in my recent post that I guarantee is not really a Pewee or a Willow.

    1. Hehehe. I didnt know about The Eagle Incident. That's a good one!

      Your gurantee did work out nicely.

  6. Yes, only had to get to the third bird to run into a species I needed you to help me ID.

    1. Pewee is a classic. Birder Magic (where a birder attempts to change one species into another) is frequently applied to pewees.

    2. I have a couple more mystery birds I might need help with, but trying to do a better job of narrowing them down first. Camera trap photos so it may not be possible to be definitive with only one angle, which is also frustrating.

  7. Thanks for this post Steve. I just discovered your blog and have really been enjoying it, though it makes me miss California.

    The very day you posted this I spotted a skulky warbler in our downtown Nashville yard and started to get myself excited that it was a Connecticut Warbler but a better look revealed it to be the Most Common Mystery Bird Of All Time. I think. Here's a bad photo.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Neil. I can't see the photo but it sounds like you are probably on the right track.

      I just came back from looking at a Pin-tailed Whydah that someone reported as a Fork-tailed Flycatcher yesterday. Maybe that shouldve made it onto this list.

    2. You did go after it! Glad I didn't try and make the drive up there. Fairly comical.