Thursday, October 2, 2008

Blue's Missing Clues

While I don't watch kid's television, I am familiar with a Nickelodeon program called Blue's Clues. Apparently, this blue dog, Blue (woah!), leaves clues for the show's host to ponder. By the end of the program, he (the host) sits in his "Thinking Chair" and attempts to come up with an answer. Basically, it is a puzzle and answer show that gives Sesame Street a run for the money.

Every now and then, a birder (at least honest ones like me) sees a bird they should know but can't place the name. During the fall migration, this is even easier to do as many of the birds look different than they would in the spring. For example, male warblers don't look as flashy. Their fancy looks in the spring are all about mating. Once breeding is done, their fancy colors are lost before they head south for the winter. (It might be likened to some guys nowadays. Oh sure, they shower, shave and keep the place clean, but once they get married, all that goes out the window!). Female warblers are, in some cases, pretty drab to begin with. (I'm not going there.) But during the fall, you now have young birds to contend with. In some cases, you can separate males and females even though they are only a few months old!

So what do puzzles and birds have to do with anything?! Well, everything!

I was birding at Lake Erie Metropark today. While I spent some time at the Hawk Watch, I opted to press on and see what songbirds I could muster. White-throated Sparrows were apparent and I scrounged up a Red-eyed Vireo, too. But one bird, left me looking around for my Thinking Chair.I am certain some of you are looking at this bird thinking I'm an idiot. (I'm also certain some of you think I'm an idiot anyways and this bird has nothing to do with it, but I won't walk that path either.)

The issue here I think is the old "zero in on one field mark to help you identify the bird "problem. It didn't take long to figure out I was looking at a warbler (the tweezer-like bill for nabbing insects is the key). I knew that is what not a adult male bird in fall plumage as my mental Rolodex flashed them all and nothing was a match. Okay, cool. Now I have to manage the females and young of the year.

So what is there? What sort of clues did I have? Well, it seems to have buffy tones underneath while the upperside is olive. The eyebrow (officially called the supercilium) is obvious as is the white crescent under the eye. You might say its lack of field marks is a field mark. Oh, it has to be a Black-throated Blue Warbler. A female, in fact. I can confirm it with the white patch on the primary flight feathers. It is....right.....

...wait a minute.....

There isn't a white patch on the primaries. All female Black-throated Blues have a white patch in the base of the primaries, right? Hmmm, no white so it can't be that. I spent the next 15 mintues trying to figure out what the heck it was.

Of course, it wasn't until I got back to my Thinking Chair (the drivers seat of my car) that I confirmed it. I looked at my photos on my camera (I shoot digital) and compared it with a field guide. Well, it turns out not all Black-throated Blues have white in the wings. Apparently, about 10% of the first fall females are missing the classic clue. Even then, I showed the photo to a few folks, and they confirmed it.

A first fall female Black-throated Blue Warbler. (In case you are wondering, the bird species is named after the male's breeding colors. You can see one here.)

Perhaps I am not too old for children's television after all.

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