Saturday, May 21, 2011

I Give Up But I Don't Care

I've been birding since 1992.  It is a long story, but it is fair to say I have been doin' this for almost 20 years!

Even after 20 years, I still find myself now and then saying "huh?"

Take this picture I snagged in Washtenaw County the other day:

 When I took the picture (the bird was feet away), I was prepared to call it a female American Redstart and leave it at that.  It has all the marks, right?  Hmmm - a small, grayish olive bird with yellow/orange spots on the the tail, wings, and flanks.  That is easy. After all, it matches all the pictures in the books.  Plus, the behavior was a match.  In what seems to be a hyper-active state, they are constantly flicking open their tails and wings (sort of like those clowns in a gym flexing muscles when no one is really watching so they can feel good about themselves).

So, I pulled my  Peterson Field Guide to Warblers to learn more. Where does it breed?   Much of the eastern United States and a large chunk of Canada.  What habitat does it like?  Deciduous woods or mixed deciduous-coniferous woods near water. They are cool with second growth woodlands, too, so they don't suffer as much from deforestation as other birds might.


Wait a minute.

Did I say that was a female?

Its a boy. Now you might be thinkin' that it can't be a male because the males are a stunning black, white and orange.  Well, that is true. They are black, white and orange when they are "all grown up."  But what about a younger male?

Wanna know what a first spring male looks like? Look at the picture!   Apparently, the males, in their first spring, look very much like females.  Look at the face especially.  See how there is no "paleness" before the eyeball?  On a female, this area (called the lores) would be pale. On this bird, it looks a bit dark, almost black. Dark, not light, is completely consistent with a male.

Bingo. First spring male American Redstart!


On a whim, I contacted a good friend of mine.  She bands birds (for a living!) and knows quite a bit about this stuff.  A large part of her work day during the banding season involves looking into peculiar details about a bird's body - the shape of a specific feather or the how much suturing has occurred between skull bones.  One of her main sources for her banding studies involves a tremendous amount of work by a guy named Pyle (not this one).

It turns out Pyle's book does not say a thing about the color of the lores.  Not a peep.  Light. Dark. Who cares.  You can't tell if it is a boy or a girl if it is in this plumage. 

Well, okay, you can.  If I shot it with a gun instead of a camera, we could look at "the parts" to see if it is a male or female.  Maybe in the future, x-ray camera equipment will be available in the field (bad news, I'm sure, for attractive woman living next to creeps).  But, I think you get my point - according to Pyle, this bird can not be sexxed.  Boy? Girl? No way to tell from the photo.

(Keep in mind, there are clues that would help me if they were available.  If I had seen it singing in the field, we could have called it a male.  If it was sitting in a nest keeping the eggs warm, it would be a female. )

So where does that put me now? After all, one reputable source (the field guide) says "male" while another source (Pyle's work that is used by banders all across the country) says "not sure".

Honestly, I don't care anymore.  I'll let the fancy bird people figure that one out...if they can.  At this point, I'm just happy I saw it.  Have I seen 'em before. Yup.  Do I look forward to seeing on again?  Yup.

That is good enough for me.

No comments: