Easy Birding, Ch. 10, Five More

Five More Easy Species

There are more easy species than we might shake a stick at something, anything, in order to end a sentence with a preposition. Of course, as often repeated, the ease of any five easy species is relative. Many of the following birds are easily seen, all we need is time, a little transportation, usually, and some nourishment. A short drive or from the back yard, a little peanut butter and we have the next five easy species.

House Finch – Male House Finches have a wash of color, ranging from raspberry to yellow, but usually close to the former, that covers the head, rump and upper breast. House Finches look a little like Purple and Cassin’s Finches but are more streaked. Check your field guides. House Finches, once strictly western birds, were introduced to the east in the 1940’s. Now, they are everywhere, almost.

American Goldfinch – This is an easy bird, east and west of the Mississippi, the Rocky Mountains, anything between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. As a goldfinch, it is easy to identify by its yellow body and black wings and tail.

Eastern Bluebird and Tufted Titmouse are two easy eastern birds. Both nest in cavities, both are distinctively patterned and do not especially cause problems in identifying similar species. Birders traveling to the West will run into two other bluebirds, the all blue male Mountain Bluebird and the Western Bluebird. Eastern Bluebirds have blue backs and chestnut throats while Western Bluebirds have a touch of chestnut on their backs and have blue throats. All three species of bluebirds usually are easily seen while driving on back country roads. The Tufted Titmouse is a little harder to see but is far noisier than any known bluebird. A walk in the woods or down an urban sidewalk will usually reveal a Tufted Titmouse. There are other titmice, but all are mostly grayish tufted birds found west of the range of the Tufted Titmouse. The other titmice are easy birds too if you are near one. Like the Tufted, the four other species are prone to singing and calling.

Other eastern species are easy to find if you get to the right habitat. Knowing something about habitat preference of birds is important. Soon associating birds to habitat will become second nature. If you are in the east and are looking over a coastal shallow of a marsh look for Black Skimmers. As North American birds go, Black Skimmers are unique. They forage by flying low over the water while plowing their lower mandible just below the surface of the water. When the lower mandible touches prey, the bill shuts down on a meal. Their black and white plumage and black-tipped orange bill is easy on the eyes.

Let’s see. House Finch, American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Bluebird and Black Skimmer. That makes five easy species.

And Five More Easy Species

Beginning birders should not become discouraged. There are flocks of species that are easy to identify. And, the more a birder birds, the easier it is to identify species once thought as difficult. It is a learning curve thing.

What about the swallows? Five species of swallows breed across the United States and most of Canada. They are easy species. Barn Swallows are especially easy to identify. Their long forked tails set them off from the other species. After that, things begin to get a little sticky. Tree Swallows, with their white breasts are not particularly a problem unless you are on west of the Rocky Mountains where Violet-green Swallows roam. They have more white on them than Tree Swallows, but there are field guides anyone can check to work out how to differentiate the two species. As anyone will discover, there are some really dull Tree Swallows that can cause a second breath before announcing their kind. Cliff Swallows are everywhere, but Cave Swallows look somewhat like Cliff Swallows. Northern Rough-winged Swallows and Bank Swallows are brown-backed, which requires a good look. Boiling down swallowology, Barn Swallow has it hands down on being an easy species. Barn Swallow is the easy species of swallow. The others require a little practice.

Jays are another group of birds that surely have at least one easy species. Easterner will find that Blue Jays are easy species, winter, spring, summer and fall. Similar to the Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jays will more than likely be heard before they are seen. Blue Jays are striking birds, blue backed, with a blue crest, with striking black and white bars on the wings and tail. When traveling west, your relatives will swear that Blue Jays also are in their neighborhoods, and, in fact, they may have blue jays, but not Blue Jays. Even a field guide illustrating the Blue Jay and other species of jays may not persuade them that the bird they have in their backyard is a Steller’s of Western Scrub-Jay. Also, that black crested job’s monicker is not known as Stellar Jay as some newspaper editors and new birders may claim. The stellar Steller’s Jay was named for an Eighteenth Century naturalist. Don’t fret; it isn’t worth the effort to try to convince people that Blue Jays are essentially an eastern species, usually. The word usually is a good word to keep in mind, since, despite all the range maps and verbal descriptions of ranges, birds may bend what is thought to be known. In fact, Blue Jays seem to be extending their breeding ranges westward. Soon, our nonbirder friends and relatives back yards may be crawling with stellar blue jays and Blue Jays.

There are a couple of other jays that usually are not called blue jays, no matter who you are. These are the gray jays, the larger and louder Clark’s Nutcracker and the actual Gray Jay. The Gray Jay, colloquially the Camp Robber, is a soft gray bird, a mostly quiet and inquisitive bird of the coniferous western mountains. Clark’s Nutcrackers, a bird many visitors to National Parks will find, are rowdy, loud-beaked rulers of the timberline sky. They are noticeable flashes of gray, black and white compare to the more sedate Gray Jays.

Having had novices confuse, as strangely as it seems, Gray Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker, most easy birders will quickly master identifying the two species. Despite the fact that many westerners call any blue jay a Blue Jay, beginning birders quickly discern the difference between the crested Steller’s Jay and the round pate of the Western Scrub-Jay. Okay, six species were in the discussion, but technically this is not a chapter on math, why quibble over one species and actually a nutcracker is not a jay, at least in name.

What about an easy flycatcher? There are some, such as the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, but you might have to travel to its breeding range, which is confined, usually (there’s that qualifier again) to Oklahoma, most of Texas and parts of Kansas, Missouri south to western Louisiana. There are several species of flycatchers that breed over large areas of either the western or the eastern continent, but many of them may make birding not so easy. For example, the Great Crested Flycatchers breeds over most of the east, but what about a wayward cousin, another member species in the genus Myiarchus. Both of these birds have yellowish underparts, brownish upper parts and can give most anyone headaches. In North America, probably the easiest and least confusing flycatcher that has a normal tail is the Eastern Kingbird. The white belly and dark slate gray back quickly distinguish this kingbird from the grayish backed Gray Kingbird possibly seen in Florida, and from the yellowish bellied western kingbirds, the sometimes confused quartet of Cassin’s, Couch’s, Tropical and Western Kingbirds. By the count, only four easy flycatchers are endorsed as easy. The other mentioned species are not so easy. What about number five. My vote is Black Phoebe, a black and white example of an easy species if you live in western Oregon southto western California or in southern Arizona to parts of western Texas. Another contender is Vermilion Flycatcher and, although embarrassingly easy to identify, has a range limited to southern Arizona to western Texas. For birder in the east of the Rocky Mountains, Eastern Phoebe is an easy species since it is darkish above and pale below, lacks eye rings and wingbars pumps its tail as if it is a happy flycatcher.

That’s another five easy species. Not bad. Pretty easy. Are there more? Certainly.

A Final Five Easy Species

How about nuthatches? There are only four species in North America. How hard is that? Not difficult to identify are two of the more common and widespread species. The first species, Red-breasted Nuthatch, has a smaller breeding range and depending on where you live, might require a trip up into the mountains. In some winters, they descend to low elevations. They like conifers and are fairly constantly noisy. One field guide states they sound like a toy tin horn. I’m not sure. Once you find a foraging group, pick your own instrument.

White-breasted Nuthatches are about an inch larger than Red-breasted Nuthatches. The species also breeds over most of the United States except the higher mountains. White-breasted Nuthatches are commonly seen at feeders. Although easy to identify, these birds differ depending on locality. Here’s where it gets interesting and, at the same time more difficult. It seems that the calls of some of the subspecies are different. What, subspecies? Subspecies are populations of a species that are identifiable, usually morphologically, from other populations in a different part of the same species breeding range. The morphological differences may so subtle that populations cannot be identified in the field. That’s where museum specimens come to the rescue. When subspecies differ in other ways, such as vocalizations, some taxonomists, those who study evolutionary relationships of birds begin to scratch their heads. The fact that eastern White-breasted Nuthatches don’t sound the same as those in the Great Basin, perhaps Nevada or the same as those on the West Coast definitely asks, what does this mean? Is the White-breasted Nuthatch, the easy bird we know and love today hiding something? Are there actually three species nestled within our presently easy White-breasted Nuthatch? Apologies may be in order, but for now, White-breasted Nuthatch is a member of this set of five easy species.

The eastern Brown-headed and western Pygmy Nuthatches could be part of a set of five easy species, and should be depending on birding experience. For now, let’s not get to involved in the nuances of nuthatchology. To recapitulate, or better, since that is not a particularly easy word, to review, one of our easy birds has a rusty undersides giving its name Red-breasted Nuthatch. The other, the White-breasted is white underneath.

Of course, until more research is accomplished, especially at the genetic and biological levels, we have an extremely easy species, the one and so far, only, Red Crossbill. Look for them in the Cascades, the Rockies, southern Canada and the Appalachians. Although they like to frequent conifer treetops, at least out west, they are easy to find. Their flight calls give them away. The brick-red of the males, yellowish females and stripped juveniles, all with crossed bills are a sight to experience. As with White-breasted Nuthatches, pay attention to what you hear. Not all crossbills sound alike. It seems that the dimension of those crossed bills is correlated to the cone and the extracted seed of different kinds on conifers and the difference apparently changes their voice. No, it seems unlikely that pine cones or fir cones do not cause differences in vocalization. That would be too easy. In a nutshell, no pun intended, crossbills may be identified by vocalization and habitat. Identified as what remains a mystery. Yes, it is possible Red Crossbills constitute more than one species, perhaps eight or nine species!

Oh no! Some easy species seem to becoming difficult species. Who ever heard of Five Difficult Species? There are plenty, but don’t worry, be easy on yourself. Learn more, then what is difficult today may be easy tomorrow. Birding, even easy birding has to have some challenges to keep us coming back. If we knew everything about birds, where and which ones would be on the next birding foray, why bother. Stay home and watch TV re-runs.

Getting back to basics and avoiding taxonomic snarls of cryptic species, it is time to momentarily shun those possible hidden species under the wings of well-known birds such as White-breasted Nuthatches. let’s look at three more easy species.

The Red-winged Blackbird is a good example, probably, of an easy species. The use of probably here is similar to qualifying with the word usually. Specific to this blackbird, it is unlikely any of the many subspecies will jump to species rank. So, easy birders, consider the Red-winged Blackbird one of a set of five easy species. Redwings are hard birds to miss, sometime traveling with other species of blackbirds and Starlings, a too easy species. There’s nothing like that red on black on a sunny day or the gurgling song of a Red-winged Blackbird.

Killdeers are another easy species. The astute is now wondering, why list Killdeers last, when crossbills and blackbirds are near the end of my checklist or field guide. The observation is correct, the sequence of the species on checklist are almost always in taxonomic order. That linear sequence follows the order that ornithologists currently regard as the best reflection of the lineage of species. The sequences with orders, families, genera and species is not necessarily linear, but who wants to lug around a three-dimensional checklist. To answer the question of discussing the easiness of Killdeers, birds don’t jump up in front of us in a taxonomic order. You might have started the birding trip by listing White-breasted Nuthatches at your feeder. The Killdeer could have been the last bird of the field trip.

Regardless of when you see one, or what position they are on a checklist, Killdeers are truly easy species. Although a member of plovers, a generally difficult group of birds, Killdeers stands out as distinctive. Even before seeing one, that plaintive insistent and incessant call, the one that gave them their name, is loud and hard not to notice. Try not to let the calling annoy you, especially when their calls and uneasiness is scaring away other shorebirds nearby. Killdeer’s white belly, with two black bands across the upper breast, and bright orange rump are unmistakable field marks. The contrasting dark and white pattern on the head, along with their kill-dee call, suggest a bird with too many worries. Killdeers are widespread, frequent shorelines, fields, lawns and parking lots. What an easy species.

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