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Hard Taxa

Young birder Mia Hartley is curious about something on p. 37 of the March/April 2013 Birding:

Mia Hartley

The rosy-finch to which she’s calling our attention is labeled, without any justification or explanation, a Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. Let’s take a closer look at the photo, by none other than Bill Schmoker:

13-2-10-02 [Brown-capped Rosy-Finch]


Hmm… That bird looks distinctively gray-crowned. Why isn’t this a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch?

In a nutshell, this is a fresh Brown-capped Rosy-Finch in fall. The bird has recently completed its single annual molt, and, as I understand the it, will gradually acquire a brown-capped plumage aspect in the months to come. By summer, when birders are looking for Brown-capped Rosy-FInches on their breeding grounds in the snowfields of the southern Rockies, the birds will look the way they’re “supposed to.”

The adult males are the (relatively) easy ones. Check that: The nonhybrid adult males are the (relatively) easy ones. I see apparent immature female rosy-finches in early winter that I cannot begin to put a name to. When I see big winter flocks in Colorado, I see adult males that seem to match well enough with one of the four distinctive populations (Hepburn’s, Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, Black) occurring in the southern Rockies, but, I swear, I see adults that look perfectly intermediate between, say, Black and Brown-capped.

And then there are the flight calls. I think—I kinda, sorta think—I’ve figured out some average differences: a muffled choof for Gray-crowned, a somewhat more ringing choor for Brown-capped, and a harder chop for Black. But I’m not sure of any of that. Where’s Nathan Pieplow when you need him?…

The bottom line is clear: Rosy-finches are hard.

But you wouldn’t necessarily glean that truth from your field guide. In my copy here of the 5th edition of Nat Geo, the Yellow-legged Gull—not exactly an everyday sighting in the ABA Area—receives more verbiage than all the rosy-finches combined.


When birders think of challengings IDs, certain taxa leap to mind: Calidris sandpipers, Empidonax flycatchers, “confusing fall warblers,” sparrows, jaegers, accipiters, scaups, dowitchers, and, of course, the notorious “LWHGs”—the large white-headed gulls of which the Yellow-legged is one.

Fine. Those are hard taxa. But what about other taxa that, for whatever reason, pose underappreciated ID challenges? I’ve already named one: the rosy-finches in the genus Leucosticte. Unquestionably, any given rosy-finch in winter in Colorado is going to be harder to ID, on average, than any given gull in winter in Colorado. But think about how much more has been written about winter gull ID than winter rosy-finch ID.

Okay, we’ve got:

1. Rosy-finches.

Let’s try to come come up with some others:

2. Catharus thrushes in western North America.

3. The “Solitary Vireo” complex.

4. The “croven” complex, the ABA Area’s five species in the genus Corvus.

5. Female orioles.

These are taxa that I regularly encounter here in Colorado. Note that each one involves at least three species, er, “species.” These give me fits. I frequently find myself incapable of making an ID, and I wonder how often I make the wrong ID.


As we work together to enumerate the underappreciated hard taxa of North America, let’s abide by a trio of ground rules:

First, and to make it fun, let’s restrict this to groupings with at least three so-called species. Thus, we’re disqualifying such pairings as Winter and Pacific wrens.

Second, let’s focus on ID problems that are routinely encountered by, hmm, “normal” birders in the ABA Area. Thus, crows and orioles, not Phylloscopus warblers.

Third, and this is really the biggie, we’re interested in hard taxa that fly under the radar. Yes, we all know that Parasitic Jaegers and Dusky Flycatchers are hard. But how about the birds that are just as hard, yet nowhere near as notorious?—Blue-headed Vireo & Co., Hermit Thrush & Co., Brown-capped Rosy-Finch & Co., and so forth.

What do you think?


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Jesse Ellis

    Blackbirds (icterids) as a whole are underrated ID challenges. In many cases (sex*age-class combinations) they are straightforward, but certain of those among species can have a lot of overlap, and I think many people don’t think about them. I’ve seen a lot of argument over single photos of blackbirds with no scale…

  • Here’s a mind-bending photo quiz:

    If you haven’t seen this quiz, give it a whirl. When I attempted this quiz–and it’s a full-on, well-composed, frame-filler image–I was way in the wrong order. The quiz is an eye-opener and a mind-bender.

  • We recently had a blackbird question come up on the Oregon birding listserv (OBOL) that caused me to take some photos, ask some questions, and put together a short photo essay about Red-winged Blackbird variation. It discusses how some female Red-wingeds might be mistaken for Tricolored Blackbirds. Just posted it today. Blackbird molt and feather wear are such that there is much individual variation.

  • Jesse Ellis

    I’ll be the first to admit I find Sterna terns really annoying. I don’t quite get enough experience with Common and Arctic to really get the differences down every season. I’ve also seen some great birders convince themselves on one species at a distance and “revise” when they got closer – I take that as a testament to this group’s subtlety.

  • matthew

    I would imagine that for the “average” birder (like me?) that the birds I double check the field guide for could be on such a list. I agree with the above suggestions, such as female orioles and the Sterna terns. I’d also add: winter loons, female ducks, female hummingbirds, and female Haemorhous finches (well, just Cassin’s and Purple). In reality, the challenges that I face as a birder have just as much to do with exposure as with the relative difficulty in identification. If it’s a bird I don’t see but once or twice a year, the challenge is that much greater.

  • Impressed once again this past weekend by how close I had to look sometimes to be entirely sure of Myiarchus identifications.

  • Ted Floyd

    Here’s another. First, I gotta give credit where credit is due: Both Tom Johnson and Rob Williams have got me thinking about this.


    In the ABA Area, that means the two ABA Area swifts in the genus Chaetura. We just ID them by range, right? But I wonder how many East Coasters realize that the Chimney Swift is more likely in summer in southern California than the Vaux’s Swift, and that Chimney Swifts probably breed in Los Angeles?

    And then in the tropics, is there any group more difficult than swifts? I mean, with tapaculos you get to hear them, and sometimes even see them up close. Imagine if tapaculos occurred only high in the sky, zooming around like tiny missiles, and so far away that you couldn’t even hear them. Tapaculos are hard. Diving-petrels are hard. Neotropical swifts are really hard.

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