Birding Brevard: 'Shape Up,' the Next Step in Bird ID
By Dave Freeland
(This is the second in a six-part series on bird identification. In last month’s issue of The Limpkin, we focused on size.)
Once you’'ve got a bird's size down pat, move on to its shape. Yes, of course birds all have the same basic shape – legs, wings, head and neck and so forth. But since you may have only a few moments to spend with that questionable bird you’re seeing, it's imperative to zero in on a few key factors in its basic make-up. Be sure to make note of the bird’s leg structure, its bill, its neck and its wings (if it flies or otherwise lets you take note of wing shape).
A bird's legs often tell you a great deal about what family of birds you're dealing with. If it has long legs, trailing about behind it as it flies or stretching from its underparts to the ground or tree limb, it is not a passerine (warbler, sparrow, chickadee, woodpecker, etc.). It is not a duck or other type of waterfowl. Long legs suggest a heron or other wading bird, possibly a hawk or some kind of shorebird.
The length of the legs will seldom tell you exactly what species you’re looking at (though a precise examination of leg-length can be a key factor in separating the two night-herons). But it can get you to the right pages of your field guide more quickly if you have a general idea what family you’re dealing with. The length of a bird’s neck is also a useful mark to observe. Necks are either short, as in most bird species, or long. It won’t take long to determine which is true on the bird you’re looking at.
Very important in many birds is the length and structure of its bill. A bird's bill is obviously a major factor in how it eats, so many birds have adapted themselves to chosen food sources through modifications in the bill shape. Think of an ibis and its long, strongly decurved bill. Or a warbler with its thin (think insect-eater) bill. Or a plover with its medium-length, probing bill. Birds' bills offer a major opportunity to help in identification, and bills are usually in plain view, so get a good look at it and make mental notes. If physical notes will help you remember its structure, bring a pencil and pad of paper into the field with you.
Finally, if the bird shows its wing structure, take a good, hard look at that. Are the wings long and tapering, like a harrier? Are they short and rounded, like an accipiter ? Are they sharply pointed, like a swift? Are they hunched in flight, like a whistling-duck? You may not be able to get a good look at a bird's wing structure if it does not fly while you’re viewing it, but birds do have wings and sometimes use them! Be sure you get a good look at them if a kind bird presents them to you for examination.
We're ignoring body shape here, though that can be important, too. But most birds have roughly the same body shape. On the other hand, if you see a pot-bellied shorebird probing in the mud along with dowitchers and yellowlegs, be sure to look closely. That sounds like a perfect description of a rarity known as a Ruff.
Where to Go: Fall is the month to watch for strong northerly, northeasterly or easterly winds to blow seabirds closer to a place like Playalinda Beach in Canaveral National Seashore. That northeast-facing beach is ideal for spotting jaegers, sea ducks and other migrating waterfowl at this time of year. Try the pavilion at Eddy Cove or the top of the dunes at parking lots 9 or 13 for comfortable vantage points into the sometimes stormy Atlantic Ocean.
Bird of the Month: As we send this column off to press, a birder in nearby Volusia County is reporting a female Kirtland’s Warbler. If accurate, that’s a wonderful sighting at any time of year.
Your Question: Has anyone ever seen Mottled Ducks with light purple feathers near their tails instead of blue ones? Or could they have been Black Ducks?
A – Perhaps the light was playing tricks. The most definitive field mark separating Mottled Duck from American Black Duck at all ages is the presence of buffy crescents in the plumage of Mottled. Blacks are also darker, but this is hard to distinguish on birds seen alone. American Black Duck is a rare bird in Central Florida.
Forward your birding question to me at email@example.com. I'll answer as many as I can directly and will publish one each month in The Limpkin.