Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Two mysteries

I am known as a birding expert among my city friends. When they travel and see birds they think, “Margo would know what that is.” Then they get home and ask me what that “big white bird” could be.

This is when my journalism training comes in handy. Where were you when you saw the bird? A beach? A forest? Was in in a tree or on the ground? Was there any other color besides the white? Was it bigger than a robin (or a more common bird they’d recognize)?

Eventually we work it out and my reputation is secure.

However, I know the only reason I can identify the birds and they can’t is because I took the time to learn, to observe, to read the birding books, to follow a call until I found the caller and note the field marks.

I was not born with this innate knowledge, although I am now at that point of being an enlightened intermediate who can recognize birds in my area without effort. It took a long time and a lot of practice.

But there are times when I don't know the answer.

Here are two examples, both seen on the same day, yesterday, at a grasslands in Franklin Township, Somerset County, in central New Jersey.

I am very, very bad on shorebirds. They generally all look the same to me. But I know from previous sightings the tall bird to the right is a solitary sandpiper, and not just because it was all alone at the edge of a small pond in the middle of the grassland. It has that eye ring and a white breast and is largish.

The other, smaller birds are the mystery. Because of the body shape I am guessing they are sandpipers rather than the stockier plovers such as the killdeer. But what types of sandpipers? Least sandpiper or the slightly larger semipalmated sandpiper? Something else?

The other mystery bird was seen in the tree bordering the grasslands. It is a remarkably dull brown bird, about robin size, with that slight mottling in the whitish breast. It had some barring in the back toward the tail that made me think it was a large house wren. But this was no house wren.

I saw a male indigo bunting in the area so I thought this might have been the duller, browner female but the bill is wrong - buntings, like finches, have stout bills for cracking seeds. This one is thinner, pointed and looks like the bill on a blackbird, which includes members of the meadowlark and oriole families. The big eye and eyebrow made me think it was a thrush, but it doesn’t have the spotting of the wood or hermit thrush and it doesn’t have the reddish color of the veery.

Both have me stumped.

I continue to look through my books and have asked at least one more experienced birder what he thinks.

Can you identify these mystery birds? Let me know at