posted January 2nd, 2013; last edited January 2nd, 2013 –– David Sibley

Quiz 54: Head patterns

The three photos below show a Song Sparrow as it turns its head. Your challenge is to locate the plumage marking known as the lateral throat stripe in each photo.

Photos ©David Sibley. Sep 2012, Concord MA.
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posted December 19th, 2012; last edited December 19th, 2012 –– David Sibley

Posture and shape distinguishes male and female Dark-eyed Juncos

Backyard Bird Discoveries

While watching a small flock of juncos at my bird feeder on December 17, 2012, I noticed one particularly brownish female. Considering subspecies and watching it a little further I noticed that it seemed more active and alert, darting around quickly and holding its body more upright than the other juncos. Could this be a regional difference? Maybe some western Juncos have a previously unnoticed tendency to stand more upright? Unlikely, but worth watching more to figure out what was going on.

Pencil sketches of Dark-eyed Juncos showing female (upper) and male (lower). Differences in posture and shape are described in the text below. Original pencil sketch copyright David Sibley.

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posted November 16th, 2012; last edited November 16th, 2012 –– David Sibley

Can you find the Cackling Goose?

One of the biggest challenges of identifying a Cackling Goose is just finding one, especially in the east where the species is rare and occurs mostly as single birds (of the relatively large and pale Richardson’s subspecies) among big flocks of Canadas. The photos below show one Richardson’s Cackling Goose among Canadas. See if you can pick it out in each photo, then read below for tips on what to look for.

Canada and Cackling Geese, Acton, MA. 14 November 2012. Photo by David Sibley.

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posted November 5th, 2012; last edited November 5th, 2012 –– David Sibley

My trick to finding Rusty Blackbirds

Almost every Rusty Blackbird that I see in the eastern United States is in flight, so the simple trick is to look up. In order to do that you need to know what to look for: I use sound to know when to look, then look for flying blackbirds that are solitary or in small groups, with long wings and long, club-shaped tails.

Rusty Blackbird (left) and Red-winged Blackbird, showing subtle differences in shape. Original pencil sketch by David Sibley.

Use your ears

First, listen for a slightly different call. All of the blackbirds and grackles give a low harsh check or tuk call in flight. In Red-winged Blackbird this is a relatively simple and unmusical chek, like hitting two twigs together. Rusty Blackbird’s call is more like chook, it has more complexity and depth. Rusty’s call is slightly longer, slightly descending, and with a bit of musical tone. It reminds me vaguely of the harsh chig call of Red-bellied Woodpecker.
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posted September 17th, 2012; last edited September 17th, 2012 –– David Sibley

My Pen-and-ink technique

With the publication of the revised edition of Hawks in Flight, I wanted to post a little bit about my drawing technique with pen and ink.

Gray Hawk, drawn for the revised edition of Hawks in Flight. The pale color of this species requires a lighter touch, with sparse fine lines, and in pen-and-ink there is little room for error. If you put on too much ink there is no way to take it back.

African Elephant, my first paid job as an artist, drawn for a travel brochure in about 1978.

I’ve always enjoyed black-and-white drawing. I remember being in third grade and spending hours looking at Earl Poole’s ink drawings in James Bond’s “Birds of the West Indies”. A few years later I was enthralled by the simplicity and grace of George Sutton’s drawings in “Fundamentals of Ornithology”.

Ink was my favorite “formal” medium from my childhood through my late-20s when I started doing a lot more painting. My first paid job as an artist was doing drawings for travel brochures, like the elephant shown above (drawn from photographs when I was about 17) and all of my early published art was pen-and-ink drawings.

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posted September 12th, 2012; last edited September 13th, 2012 –– David Sibley

Quiz 53: Eastern Sparrows in early September

Below are three sparrows photographed in Concord, MA on 11 Sep 2012. Can you identify the species?

Today’s quiz features a bonus

Everyone who submits a perfect score by noon Eastern Time tomorrow – Thursday September 13th – will be entered in a drawing to win a prize. And we have a winner! Congratulations to Tim, and thanks to all who entered.

The prize this week is donated by Acopian BirdSavers – the best way to prevent birds from hitting your windows. The winner will receive a window protector custom-made to fit their window. Of course, even if you don’t win, you can still order your own BirdSavers from Acopian BirdSavers (or even make your own).

Scroll down to take the quiz, and good luck!

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posted September 11th, 2012; last edited September 12th, 2012 –– David Sibley

In search of Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Original gouache painting copyright David Sibley.

Join me on a WINGS/Heritage Expeditions cruise 21 June to 4 July 2013 to search for nesting Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Siberia.

I’ve always been fascinated by Siberia. Growing up in the lower 48 states I dreamed of seeing birds like Steller’s Sea-Eagle, Siberian Rubythroat, even Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler, and the crowning jewel of the Siberian specialties was Spoon-billed Sandpiper. My fascination increased as the population of Spoon-billed Sandpiper declined, and in Feb 2010 I made a trip to Thailand where I could see a few individuals on the wintering grounds. That trip was very successful, and I learned a lot about identification and behavior of the species.

I really wanted to see them on the breeding grounds, but at that time there was simply no practical way of getting to the right locations. Since 2011, however, Heritage Expeditions along with BirdLife International has offered a cruise designed specifically to see Spoon-billed Sandpiper in summer, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to go along in 2013, which is the last year they plan to run this trip.
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posted September 11th, 2012; last edited September 11th, 2012 –– David Sibley

Quiz 52: More numbers

Here are three more “flocks” of lentils that need to be estimated. If you need an extra challenge, give yourself a time limit to come up with each number.
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posted September 10th, 2012; last edited September 10th, 2012 –– David Sibley

Quiz 52: Trees for birders

The quiz below shows four photographs of the leafy crowns of trees, as you might see them while looking for birds through binoculars or telescopes. Differences in leaf “posture”, arrangement, and color are just as obvious as differences in leaf shape, and all of these species are readily distinguishable at a glance, even in silhouette.

Just like beginning birdwatching, you can start by learning to recognize a few common and distinctive species of trees that you see every day, and as those become familiar you will add more species to your “repertoire”.

These photos were all taken with a Canon digital camera held to a Swarovski telescope at The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve, Shelter Island, New York, on 27 August 2012.
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posted September 8th, 2012; last edited September 8th, 2012 –– David Sibley

Juvenal plumage of songbirds: Gray Catbird

Most Passerines only hold juvenal plumage for a few weeks, quickly molting to a more adult-like plumage soon after they fledge and before fall migration. It’s a plumage that is seen almost entirely on the breeding grounds, but the breeding grounds (and fledging time) of many birds overlaps broadly with the fall migration of others, so it’s common to see a mixture of juveniles and fall migrants of various species. Learning to recognize juvenile songbirds, and appreciating the things they all have in common, can help avoid confusion in the late summer and early fall.

Juvenile (upper) and adult (lower) Gray Catbird. Original pencil sketch copyright David Sibley.

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