Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Bird Color Conundrum - 17 Shades of Gray

We already covered the colors that span the gap between red and brown - so now we can move on to the equally perplexing realm of the grayscale.  Many birds have some sort of coloration between white and black - and from the Slaty-tailed Trogon to the Snowy Egret, these colors can be baffling to the average observer.  This post, organized from lightest to darkest, should help quell your worries about this color conundrum:

White - The presence of all color - everything is being reflected back into your eyes.
Example: White-throated Sparrow, White Ibis, White-eared Ground-Sparrow

Snowy - This color is so ridiculously close to white it shouldn't even exist.  But "Snowy Owl" sounds a hell of a lot cooler than "White Owl", so we'll keep it.
Example: Snowy Owl, Snowy Cotinga, Snowy Egret, Snowy Plover

Snowy Owl - Dare County, NC
Ivory - The color of ivory, a yellowish off-white - it's the stuff they killed elephants for, and why there are all those Europeans hanging out in Africa in Heart of Darkness.
Example: Ivory Gull

Ash - The color of ash - like the bottom of the fire pit at the campground.  A light, washed-out gray.
Example: Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher - Dare County, NC (same day as the Snowy Owl above, I might add!)
Ashy - Almost the color of ash.  Almost.
Example: Ashy-headed Greenlet

Glaucous - In Latin, glaucus means blue-gray.  In English, it's basically a light gray with a slightly bluish tone.
Example: Glaucous Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull

Cinereous - Quite similar to ash, but slightly darker and tinged with brown.  Cinis means "ashes" in Latin.
Example: Cinereous Tinamou, Cinereous Finch

Grayish - Another one of those "-ish" suffixes.  It's pretty much gray...
Example: Grayish Saltator

Gray - Just saying "gray" can be a bit vague - but specifically, it is the exact halfway point between black and white.
Example: Gray Catbird, Gray Gull, Gray Flycatcher, Gray Hawk

Silver - Ag. The color of the element. A shining, sparkling, gray...but on birds it's really just gray.
Example: Silver-breasted Broadbill, Silver Oriole, Silver-beaked Tanager

Dusky - The color of the sky as the last wisps of sunlight recede o'er the horizon. Dark gray.
Example: Dusky Flycatcher

Sooty - The stuff that collects on the inside of chimneys and covers the living room carpet every Christmas morning. The color of burned carbon.
Example: Sooty Tern, Sooty Shearwater

Slate - One of my favorite colors - a dark gray, with a bluish tinge (like the metamorphic rock).  Basically a much darker version of glaucous.
Example: Slate-throated Redstart

Slate-throated Redstart - Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Slaty - Almost the color of slate.  Almost.  It seems like this is the form of "slate" used to describe birds more frequently, but I may be wrong.
Example: Slaty-backed Gull, Slaty Antwren, Slaty-tailed Trogon

Plumbeous -  Lead-colored. Like Ferruginous, this color comes from the latin name of the element.
Example: Plumbeous Vireo

Coal - The color of the fossil fuel West Virginians and Tea Party-ers love so much.  Almost black, like how snowy is almost white.
Example: Coal-crested Finch

Black - The absence of color.  No light is reflected back.  Everyone knows this.
Example: Great Black-backed Gull, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Common Black-Hawk, Melodious Blackbird

Black-cheeked Woodpecker - La Selva, Costa Rica

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

10 Signs You May Be A County Lister

County listing... perhaps the most obsessive activity a birder can do.  Life lists get boring.  State lists get boring.  So why not county list?  It opens up a whole new world.  A world where European Starlings and Rock Pigeons are no longer trash.  Where you feel elated upon reaching 10 species in a county, because it means a new color on your map.

If you can relate to the following statements, odds are you're a county lister too.

1. This is your favorite page on eBird.

2. You like maps... a little too much.

Like this.

3. You view this otherwise boring drive as an opportunity.

Flyover Barn Swallows, here we come!

4.  You've used BirdLog at a rest area.  More than once.

White-throated Sparrow? Hell yes

5.  You've looked behind you while driving, just to make sure that vulture you saw wasn't a Black.

I still need you for Brunswick, you bastards.

6. While driving down the highway, you got mad at your friend for seeing a bird that you didn't see.

Sam being too happy about some bird Lucas probably did NOT see.

7.  You actually notice these signs.

8.  You think the Texas Century Club is the best idea ever.

I also thought that making this gimmicky map thing was the best idea ever.  Go figure.

9.  You've drawn county lines across a map of a refuge so you can accurately make two separate eBird lists while in the field.

This was actually a big issue for Lucas and Sam.  Feelings were hurt.  Checklists were deleted.  But this map solved the problem.

10.  People know you have a problem, but you don't care.

After all, you're probably having more fun than they are.  By the way, this was a twitch and technically not a county-listing trip, but whatever. #NOLA

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What Audubon Called the Birds, Part II

In the last edition of What Audubon Called the Birds, I focused on some old bird names that we should go back to using.  Well, I'm back with more bird names - straight from the 1800s.

Carolina Turtle-Dove - now known as Mourning Dove
As a Carolina-born birder, I get a little sense of pride every time I hear a bird with "Carolina" in its name.  Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Porzana carolina - why not have Carolina Turtle-Dove join the ranks?  Have you ever seen a Mourning Dove actually look sad?  Hell no.  They sit on tree branches and power lines, chase each other around, and eat seeds.  Sure, their call is "mournful", but so is literally every other dove's song.  Carolina Turtle-Dove only makes sense here (though I would accept a shortened "Carolina Dove" as well).

Much better.
Ferruginous Mocking-bird - now known as Brown Thrasher
I love the word "ferruginous", so I may be a little biased.  But Brown Thrashers aren't exactly brown, as I found out.  They are, indeed, the rusty iron color of ferruginous.  I do like the word "Thrasher" though, so I think a compromise may be needed.  Let's go with "Ferruginous Thrasher" and call it a day.  It's a more accurate name, plain and simple.

Bergomaster - now known as Glaucous Gull
Burgomaster is German for "Mayor" or "Master of the Town", a fantastic moniker for this large and somewhat intimidating Larus.  I don't have any idea who started calling them Bergomasters, but I like it.  Glaucous makes me think of Glaucoma anyway, which is definitely NOT a disease a birder wants to get.
The most badass name for the most badass gull.
Great Cinerous Owl - now known as Great Gray Owl
C'mon.  Great Gray Owls aren't just gray.  They are cinerous, which is an ashy gray tinged with brown.  "Cinerous" is also tinged with just enough 19th-century romanticism to make this already-majestic bird even better.  Slam dunk.  Now if only I could see one...

Hudsonian Curlew - now known as Whimbrel
Ignoring the fact that we may return to this name anyway (or to the similar "Hudsonian Whimbrel"), I think "Hudsonian Curlew" bears a more authentic North American flair than "Whimbrel" does.  Why do we use the European name here anyway? Do we call Black-bellied Plovers "Grey Plovers"?  Or Brants "Brent Geese"?  No, we're not British.  And I want to start calling them HUCUs (pronounced HooKoos).  "Hey, did you see the big flock of HUCUs at the inlet?"  Yes, yes I did.

HUCU in North Carolina, at the aforementioned "inlet".
Acadian Owl - now known as Northern Saw-whet Owl
Some may object to changing the name of what is arguably the cutest of America's birds, but hear me out.  We need more "Acadian" birds to join the ranks of my local "pizza!" spewing Empidonax flycatcher.  Acadia was an area in the Northeast settled by the French (Acadie was the French name for Nova Scotia), a fitting location name for this little owl.  And no one knows what the sound of a "saw whetting" even is these days, so the new name is obsolete.

This owl is angry someone changed his name to Saw-whet.
I challenge the birding councils to consider my requests.  Our pastime would be much richer if we could return to these antique names.

Audubon's images from's page on Birds of America.  I feel like I should owe them something at this point.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Map - How Birders See America

When the average person sees a map of the Lower 48, they may have a few ideas about what's where.  Pizza in New York, surfing in Southern California, jazz in New Orleans, Old Faithful in Yellowstone... you get the idea.  But birding changes your perception of the map.  No longer is South Florida "only" the land of retirees - it's also the place to pick up nearly every introduced exotic species known to man.  We originally wanted to do a map of the entire ABA area, but I have no clue what birding is like in about 80% of Canada (though I could have smacked a giant "Tim Horton's" across the country).  It still proved to be a challenge to fill some of the more under-birded and unknown regions of the United States - but we finished up with (what we think is) a good representation of a Birder's Map of America. Some of the stereotypes are based on recent rarities, while others are based on what we deemed to be the species most representative of the region.

Click to enlarge.

This map is intended to show what birders actually see when they behold the beautiful map of 'Murica.  If you think we nailed it, or if you completely disagree and are disgusted that we even created this, comment below - we'd love to hear from you.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Vagrants, Before Birding

Everyone knows Audubon's paintings of extinct birds - the Carolina Parakeet, Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  However, while working on my What Audubon Called the Birds post, I realized that the great American ornithologist also found some pretty incredible rarities.  He saw a male Smew in Louisiana.*  A pair of Snowy Owls in Kentucky.  Not one, not two, but THREE Curlew Sandpipers along the coast.   This left me wondering - what kind of birds were showing up in North America before birding even got started?  This was an age where, instead of reporting a rarity to eBird or the listserv, you shot it into oblivion.  It seems likely that birds such as the Smew and Curlew Sandpiper had much larger populations in the Old World than they do today - so did they visit America in proportionately higher numbers?  Were birds showing up back then that have yet to be added to the ABA Checklist?  Let's take a closer look at some of the more intriguing species recorded during the 19th century.  (Note - Reading Rare Birds of North America a couple times by no means makes me an expert on vagrancy, but it's fun to speculate sometimes. Enjoy.)

The "Mango Humming-bird"

The "Mango Hummingbird" was not actually seen by Audubon, but he received specimens from a friend.  They (at least two) were supposedly shot in the Florida Keys.  The Audubon website lists this species as the Black-throated Mango - which seems unlikely, considering it is a strictly South American bird.  My mind jumped to Green-breasted Mango, the Mango that strays into the ABA area with some frequency.  But the illustration just isn't right.  The juvenile male has a black throat, and the adults look a little "off" too.  The female specimen, Audubon admits, was likely not collected in the US - but the other birds probably were.  All three birds in his illustration closely resemble the Antillean Mango, seen below.  It is entirely within the realm of possibility that a Caribbean hummingbird would stray north into the United States - e.g. the Bahama Woodstar in Pennsylvania.  Additionally, Green-breasted Mango vagrants tend to go North and East from Mexico, bypassing Southern Florida altogether.  It seems plausible (though not probable) that the bird encountered in Key West by Audubon's friend was an Antillean Mango (or another Anthracothorax sp.), a bird not currently on the ABA checklist.
Antillean Mango - a possible 19th Century stray to Florida?
(From Princeton University Press, Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti)

The "Black-headed Goldfinch"

What Audubon depicts here is a perfect match for the Black-headed Siskin, a Mesoamerican species. Audubon claims to have seen five of these birds on "one cold morning in December" near his home in Henderson, Kentucky.  He goes on to say that "their notes resembled those of the Pine [Siskin]..."and that he managed to shoot and procure two birds. His description is quite detailed, and lacks the vagueness that some of his other species accounts are known to have. Finches do wander, sometimes in flocks - it seems highly unlikely, but not impossible (nothing with birds is impossible), that this Mexican species of finch would wander north into the Ohio Valley. The world was experiencing a substantially different climate than that of today - the Northern Hemisphere was still within the grips of the "Little Ice Age."

However, I don't think this report would pass muster with a state bird records committee, had one existed at the time.  It seems more likely that Audubon encountered these birds elsewhere, or obtained them from a friend. He may have wanted to include this striking siskin in Birds of America (which was basically his life list), and simply changed the report to the central US.  After all, birders have been known to see a species in one location and purposefully report it from another.  Maybe Audubon was America's first stringer as well...  At any rate, it is intriguing, especially since Black-headed Siskin has been predicted to be one of the next vagrants to the ABA area.

The Scarlet Ibis

The Scarlet Ibis is on the ABA checklist, but US records have been questioned on the grounds of provenance.  Audubon claims: 
"... I have found the Scarlet Ibis less numerous than even the Glossy Ibis; indeed I have not met with more than three individuals in a state of liberty, in the whole range of the United States. These birds occurred at Bayou Sara, in Louisiana, on the 3d of July, 1821." 
Scarlet Ibises occuring as vagrants in Louisiana make complete sense.  It is safe to say that these birds were natural vagrants (how many zoos had Scarlet Ibises in 1821?), and that Audubon did, indeed, see these birds.  Audubon was certainly lucky in finding this species for is ABA list!  I also like how he considers "even rarer than Glossy Ibis" to be a strong statement of this bird's scarcity.

The Gigantic Fulmar

We don't usually associate pelagic birds with antiquity, but many species were seen with more frequency than today.  Everyone travelled by ship - and although they weren't seeking out rarities, these sailors definitely took notice of tubenoses.  

I saw this and couldn't resist.
Giant Petrel, or "Gigantic Fulmar", from Eve of the Emperor Penguin: A Merlin Mission (Magic Treehouse #40).
Perhaps the most fascinating pelagic report from the 19th century involves a specimen of a "Gigantic Fulmar, shot at some distance from the mouth of the Columbia river" which was sent to Audubon by his good friend Townsend (of Solitaire, Shearwater, and Warbler fame).   It is said to be "frequent in the southern seas", scavenging on the remains of dead animals.  This, coupled with his description of an albatross-sized bird that resembles the fulmar "in form and proportions" matches that of the Giant-Petrels.   Both the Northern and Southern Giant-Petrels, like the Black-headed Siskin, were listed as one of the next vagrants to the ABA area back in 2000 (Pranty et al.).  Could it be that one of these two species strayed north toward the Oregon coast during the early 19th Century?


In writing this post, I think I have proven my obsession with historical records of rare birds.  Hell, these are so old they're not even considered records - more like "unconfirmed sightings".  Hopefully this has been a small glimpse into rarities from before birding was a "thing" - and I'm sure there are more old reports somewhere out there worth exploring, too.  

Thanks to's page on Birds of America for the illustrations and much of the information. 

*Correction 3/12/15: It was a female, not a male, Smew shot (or so he claims) by Audubon in Louisiana.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Bird Color Conundrum - Red, Brown, and Everything In Between

It seems like everywhere we turn, a reddish-brownish bird is there looking back at us. Birds with this relatively drab coloration are in no short supply, and scientists have concocted a somewhat ridiculous list of colors to describe these earth-tones.  While birding you may have wondered, what color is rufescent, anyway?  How is the coloration of a Rufescent Tiger-Heron different from that of a Rufous Hummingbird?  We are here to help answer these questions that have plagued the birding world for decades.
So, without further ado, we'll unveil a handy run-down of these colors.
Let’s start with the easy ones:

Red- Everyone knows this color. No description necessary.
Example: Red-capped Manakin, Red-rumped Cacique, Red-tailed Hawk, the list goes on…

Red-capped Manakins, Costa Rica.  Their heads are just red - no flamboyant adjectives required.

Brown- Yeah. The color you get from mixing all the colors.
Example: Brown Jay, Brown Thrasher, etc.

Now things get a little more tricky...

Crimson- It’s basically just red. Sometimes described as a “deep” red.
Example: Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Crimson Rosella

Vermilion- Red. It’s red.  Bright red.
Example: Vermilion Flycatcher

Ruddy- Often described as a "healthy red," more brownish.
Example: Ruddy Shelduck, Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone- Sunset Beach, NC.

Cinnamon- Reddish brown, more brown than red - like the spice.  
Example: Cinnamon Teal, Cinnamon Hummingbird

Reddish- Sort of red, hence the addition of the "-ish".
Example: Reddish Egret

Ferruginous- This one is an iron red; a rusty brown-red.
Example: Ferruginous Hawk, Ferruginous Pygmy-owl

Rusty- The color of oxidized Iron; ferruginous.
Example: Rusty Blackbird

Buff - A very light brown, often a "wash".
Example: Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - Washington Co. NC

Chestnut- A deep, deep brown. Rich, smooth, chestnut...
Example: Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Chestnut-sided Warbler

Bay- The color used to describe a brown horse; so it's brown.  But a reddish brown, closely allied with chestnut.
Example: Bay-breasted Warbler, Bay-headed Tanager

Tawny- An odd mixture of brown, tan, and orange.  Sounds like a good name for a cat.
Example: Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Tawny Owl

Fulvous- Reddish-yellowish-brownish.  The full spectrum of reds and browns, mashed into one über-color.
Example: Fulvous Whistling-Duck

Rufous- Yet another reddish-brown.  There are over 160 bird species with Rufous in their name.
Example: Rufous Hummingbird, Rufous Antpitta.

Rufous Hummingbird- Raleigh, NC

Rufescent- Those bird-naming fiends decided there were too many Rufous birds, so they made up a new word, one that sounds like it's glowing.
Example: Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Bronzed/Bronzy- Resembling the metal Bronze, golden-brown.
Example:  Bronzed Cowbird, Bronzy Hermit

Brassy- Resembling the metal Brass.  They like these metals.
Example: Brassy-breasted Tanager

Russet- Potato brown, but more of a purplish-brown, maybe like those purple potatoes... I like those... Example: Russet-throated Puffbird, Russet Sparrow

Hepatic- Literally means "pertaining to the liver", so it's liver-colored - a deep, slightly brownish, red.  This may be the only useful thing I learned in Anatomy this year.
Example: Hepatic Tanager

Ochraceous- Ochre-colored. Nobody knows what the hell ochre is, so this probably isn't helpful.
Example: Ochraceous Wren

Coppery- Like the metal Copper, brownish-reddish-gold.  But not quite the color of Copper, so they added that -y on the end.
Example: Coppery-headed Emerald

Hopefully this was helpful for y'all to figure out your colors. Too bad we weren't taught "ochraceous" in kindergarten - that would have been useful.
We here at The Birder's Conundrum know that it is very important to know the colors of birds, so we will being doing more posts about bird colors. Coming soon we will have all of the azures, plumbeouses, violaceouses, and more.

All photos by Lucas Bobay