13. The bird, the whole bird, and nothing but the bird!

Mike Kilburn’s third question to the first post in this series was:

How to manage atypical/contradictory plumage/bare parts/call that do not fit the classic/typical description?

I’d like to use the quiz I posed at the end of the last post to help address this question. My challenge was: Take a close look at this picture and tell me what colour the eye-ring is!

The picture was taken by Lim Kim Chye and I reproduce it here with his kind permission.

This bird was identified as a Rusty-breasted Cuckoo on account, I suspect, of the orange extending up to the throat. On Plaintive, the throat and breast are usually grey. One of the key distinguishing features of these two species at all ages is the colour of the eye-ring – greyish or greyish-brown in Plaintive and yellow in Rusty-breasted.

So what colour is the eye-ring of this bird? The answers I got from various respondents were: dull yellow, orange yellow, pinkish and pale grey – quite a variety! In the last post I said that we tend to be particularly bad at judging pinks, oranges and yellows, and this seems to prove my point!

In this montage, I’ve progressively enlarged the eye in the photograph, without doing anything to change the colours. In the last rectangle, I used the ‘colour picker tool’ in Photoshop to pick up the colour of the lightest part of the eye-ring (at the top). So that’s the actual colour of the eye-ring as it appears in this photograph – brown!

Maybe those of us who thought the eye-ring was yellow or orange were looking at the contrast between it and the red eye. Or maybe, since the bird is labelled a Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, we knew the eye-ring ‘should’ be yellow, and were influenced accordingly?

So, the eye-ring does not appear to be yellow. A contradictory bare part detail which does not fit the typical description. What do we do with that?

Look at the whole bird!

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard or seen people identify a bird based on a single, supposedly diagnostic plumage trait. I’ve done it myself. It’s a recipe for disaster. Don’t do it!

What about the rest of the bird? The grey head and chin grading into the rich peach-orange throat and underparts looks good for Rusty-breasted and not Plaintive. The wings are browner than the head, which is not particularly helpful, since both species share this feature. Ditto, the orangey-yellow feet. The undertail shows broad whitish bars which go across the whole feather, a feature of Plaintive Cuckoo, but not adult Rusty-breasted, which has much smaller whitish notches along the edges of the tail feathers.

So, despite the anomalous peach-coloured underparts extending up to the chin, this bird must be a Plaintive Cuckoo. My thanks to Ingkayut Sa-ar for pointing this out to me – I can’t say I would have picked it out otherwise.

In general, atypical characteristics in a bird which you think you know the identity of should set off alarm bells. They may be explainable, and your original identification may be right, but it is always worth double-checking and taking a cautious approach.

A Beginner’s Guide to Wader Identification. Part 4

Lesser Sand Plover_T Tokong_081008_IMG_7568Good Behaviour!

Wader behaviour can provide some good ‘short cuts’ to identification, yet it’s something which is invisible in a field guide illustration and photos, and therefore often goes ignored or unnoticed.

Check out this wonderful video by Tara Tanaka of three North American wader/shorebird genera. The species won’t be familiar, but the groups are the same. I haven’t covered snipes yet, as they are not commonly seen in tidal habitats. Killdeer is a Charadrius plover (Group 4) and Greater Yellowlegs is a Tringa sandpiper (Group 3).

Look at the very different ways these three birds feed. How would you describe each one? What do you think they’re feeding on (and where is their prey – in the water? in the mud? on the surface? below the surface? etc)? How do you think they are locating their prey (by sight, hearing, touch, etc)? Is their prey mobile or more or less stationary?

Learning the typical feeding behaviour of each group can enable you to quickly tell different groups apart. It can even be useful in identification of similar pairs of species in the same group.

A Beginner’s Guide to Wader Identification. Part 3

Having read through Parts 1 and 2, here’s something to practice on!


Start the video (below) and pause or replay it when necessary. The video starts by showing a Little (Striated) Heron to give you some idea of size. See how you get on at putting each bird into one of the 5 groups (Part 2) or even naming them beyond that.

1. (00.00) Striated/Little Heron

2. (00.05)

3. (00.09)

4. (00.11)

5. (00.19)

6. (00.30)

7. (00.41)

8. (00.49)

9-11. (01.03)

12-13. (01.13)

14-15. (01.20)

16. (01.26)

A few things to look for are:

1. If it’s looking for food, how would you describe its actions (e.g. continuous pecking, stop, go, peck, etc)?

2. If the Little Heron is size L (See Part 2), what size would you judge each bird (e.g. S, M, L or XL)?

3. What’s the shape and length of the bill (e.g. straight, <1x head length; down-curved, 1.5x head length, etc)? Any colour visible (e.g. coloured base, black tip; all black, etc)?

4. How long are the legs (e.g. long – >1x body height; medium = body height; short – <1x body height, etc)? Any colours (black, grey, orange, etc)? NB On this video, some legs look a bit yellower than in real life!

5. What shape is the body (e.g. long and slender, short and fat, upright, horizontal, etc)?

6. Don’t worry about plumage too much, but note any obvious patterns or patches of light and dark (e.g. complete or partial breastband, dark ‘mask’, dark on bend of wing, line through eye and eyebrow, etc).

Once you’ve done as much as you can, if you want, send me your best guesses and questions and I’ll do my best to let you know how you got on! This isn’t a competition by the way – so don’t send in your answers if this is ‘easy’ for you!

SPOILER ALERT! I’ve added a ‘cheat sheet’ with the answers in the Replies section.

A Beginner’s Guide to Wader Identification. Part 2

After giving you a week to digest Part 1, here’s Part 2! Self explanatory really – this section zeros in on size and shape, with a bit on probability (in Malaysia!). Again, this is a reprint from Suara Enggang 19/2 (June 2011). The design alchemy is by Chin Pik Wun. Click on the image to see the larger version, and by all means, make a copy and keep it for handy reference.

wader id 4wader id 5wader id 6

wader id 8wader id 9Clipboard01

A Beginner’s Guide to Wader Identification. Part 1

It’s that time of year again!

Waders (or shorebirds) are on the move southwards after a busy but brief breeding season in the tundras of the far north. For the next 7-8 months, they’ll be a feature of shorelines throughout much of the tropics and the southern hemisphere.Wader id 2

Before I go any further, I’d better define my terms! Waders/shorebirds are a subset of a much larger groups known as waterbirds. Waterbirds include gulls and terns, herons and egrets, ducks, grebes and many others. Waders (the British term) or shorebirds (the more commonly used term in the US) are the small, predominantly brown and white birds with longish legs which scuttle around on mudflats at low tide. That’s a very simple unscientific but hopefully easy-to-understand definition! In the picture above, all the birds are waterbirds, but only the small brown ones wading around in the mud are waders…or shorebirds – get the picture?

One of the first problems facing the would-be wader-watcher is the bewildering variety, not only of birds, but also of field guide illustrations! On average, a good regional field guide shows around fifty wader species which could occur. Some people might take one look at the book and the array of possibilities and give up! But there are ways of greatly increasing the odds of making a correct identification.

In the rest of this series, I’ll reproduce an article originally published in Suara Enggang Vol 19/2 in June 2011. The words and text are mine but the design wizardry is by Chin Pik Wun! As always, click the images for a clearer view.

Wader id 1

wader id 3Here’s one to practice on. Using the tips in 2. above, assuming this is the first time you’ve ever looked at waders, and you know nothing about them, what could you say about this group? Before reading on, click on the picture to enlarge it and then jot down anything and everything you notice, using the tips in point 2 above as a guide.

I. SIZE: There seem to be 2 sizes here – three smaller birds and 7 slightly larger ones.

II. SHAPE AND STRUCTURE: There are at least three types of bill: i) short, straight, thick, blunt-ended, less than 1x head length ii) medium length, straight, tapering to a fine tip, about 1x head length iii) long, thin upward curving, 1-2 x head length.

You can do the same thing with the legs, and also the body shape, noting the difference between the rather fat, upright stance of some birds and the more slender, horizontal stance of others. This is easier to appreciate in real live moving birds than ‘frozen’ photographs.

Once you can identify one of the species with certainty, then you have a baseline to compare the others to (e.g. supposing you identify the long-upcurved billed birds as Terek Sandpipers, you can then judge whether the others are smaller, larger or about the same size). This really helps to narrow down the possibilities.

III. BEHAVIOUR (which includes where the birds are.) These are right on the tideline of what looks like a sandy, or mixed sand and mud beach. If you could see them moving, you could note whether they walk or run, move constantly or in a stop-start motion, in flocks or singly, whether they feed off the surface or probe below the surface, and what they seem to be feeding on.

IV. PROBABILITY. You can find out from books, the internet and more experienced wader-watchers what the most likely species are in your area. In this case, it’s a beach in western Sarawak.

V. COLOUR. Rather than looking at details straight away (that may come later!), it helps to start by noticing ‘blocks and patterns’. For example, in the photo above, the larger, ‘fatter’ birds behind seem be rather plain brown ‘above’. They also have a distinct ‘collar’ round the front of the neck and a bit of a pale eyebrow above a brown mask that runs through the eye. The 2 smaller birds in the centre look much paler overall, and to be rather ‘mottled’ and grey above, to have only a diffuse pale grey collar, and a darker ‘shoulder’ at the front bend of the wing. The long-billed birds have orange legs (be careful with colours – perceptions, light and individual variation can play a part, and of course, mud can conceal leg and bill colour completely! Some might say these legs are yellow or even red. But at least we can agree they are brightly coloured, and not black!)

I’m not saying that by observing all these details you will immediately be able to identify every wader you see. But hopefully, this exercise shows you that, with a little observation and effort, you can actually say quite a lot about the birds you see (and it helps greatly to remember by writing notes). If you make a habit of visiting the same site regularly over the coming migratory season, and following this process of observation, you’ll soon be able to identify the commoner species with confidence. Once you have a few key species to compare others with, the identification of other, less commonly seen species becomes much easier.