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March/April 2013 Birding “Photo” Quiz

Here’s an image of the quiz bird in the March/April 2013 issue of Birding magazine:



Where to start? Well, it would be helpful to note the date and location.

Ask, and ye shall receive. The photo is from the third week in April (like, right now), and the location is southeastern Arizona.

Need more? Here’s a 26-second video of the bird:


Note that this isn’t a birdsong quiz. You can hear some background noise, but that’s not the point of the quiz. The bird is just out there, doing exactly what this species does on its spring migration.

If you have prior experience with this species, you’re probably thinking this is an easy quiz. Fair enough. But give thought for a moment to what’s going on here. This quiz is easy precisely because of the video. We don’t have an illustration of the bird; the vocalizations are, at best, equivocal; the videograb is so poor that it would never, ever, be published in any self-respecting field guide; and there’s absolutely no written description—except that I’ve told you the date and location.

In other words, we have a resource here that cannot be provided by a traditional field guide. It’s a resource that could form the basis for a fantastic next generation of field ID apps. But not yet. Today’s apps, I think it’s fair to say, take material from print field guides, and then repackage it in an e-medium.

How about a field guide app that basically starts over? Instead of giving us the still photos and illustrations and written words from field guides, how about an app that gives us short instructional videos? Anybody want to get to work on that project?

Meanwhile, what do you think this bird is?

A request: If you know what the bird is, please explain to a hypothetical new, keen, smart birder from Tennessee, Ontario, or South Korea why she ought to believe you.

Please note: This video is used with permission of the videographer. Full credit will appear in the published photo quiz answer and analysis in the May/June 2013 Birding. Full credit will also appear right here in a few days—after we’ve had a bit of a chance to work out the ID together. 


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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)

  • Casey

    I’d say this is a Gray Flycatcher due to its range, slight white line connecting the eye and the bill, and obvious tail-bobbing behavior. I ruled out Eastern Phoebe mostly due to the range and the more drab gray color (Phoebes are darker on top). Thanks for the quiz!

  • Gray Flycatcher. Downward tail wagging is distinctive, other flycatchers flick their tail upward.

  • Thanks, guys, and I’m not trying to be difficult, but:

    1. Louisiana Waterthrushes, Spotted Sandpipers, and Palm Warblers bob their tails.
    2. A tail that goes downward also goes upward. (Although I’d say you’re getting somewhere with “wagging” and “flicking.”)

    Anyhow, this rather gets at the point I’m trying to make. How do you describe, in words or pictures, in the field guide medium, “obvious tail-bobbing” and “distinctive downward tail wagging”?

    Is the only way to identify a Gray Flycatcher by getting experience in the field? Or can it be learned from a book? I have a confession to make: I could never figure out from books the tail-dipping thing. I had to go and see the actual behavior (i.e., exhibited by birds of known identity in the field) to learn it.

  • Anya Auerbach

    This is an empidonax flycatcher because of its white wing-bars, medium-length rounded tail,short dark bill, and slight eye ring (I found the peaked head and pale throat briefly confusing, but it lacks the dark vest on the chest that a pewee would have). The video identifies it as a grey flycatcher because it bobs its tail almost entirely below the horizontal, very regularly in a smooth movement.

  • Robert Hamilton Thayer

    It looks to me more like a vireo or a warbler. I’ve taken dozens and dozens of photos here in Central Texas

  • Kirk Roth

    Responding to Ted, Nat Geo describes Gray Flycatcher as “long tail, often bobbed down like a phoebe, unlike all other Empidonax” Sibley says “wags tail gently down, phoebelike”

    For what its worth, I’ve never seen a Gray, nor a video of one until this one, but I was able to identify this bird immediately after the first tail bob (although general color and head shape play a part).

    For me, the written descriptions work just fine. But its because I have plenty of experience with OTHER empidonax. “Phoebelike” tail bobbing will obviously not mean much to those unfamiliar with Phoebes. But an eguide with a video such as this will be just as confusing to beginning birders, leading them to misidentify Phoebes, Palm Warblers, and yes, even Spotted Sandpipers in some cases, if the tail bobbing is the main focus. So the answer to your question is that yes, the only way to identify a Gray Flycatcher is by getting experience in the field… but by that I mean general birding experience, not necessarily with that particular bird. And yes, it can be learned from a book… if you have enough experience to know what the book is talking about!

    The Nat Geo app incorporates some (very few) videos, but they are buried in the “Tool Kit” and not accessable from the main field guide section. While a few of these videos show some helpful behavioral characters (ie Winter Wren posture), most are aesthetically pleasing but not particularly useful for critical ID criteria.

  • Ted Floyd

    Hey, Kirk.

    You make a good point:

      “But an eguide with a video such as this will be just as confusing to beginning birders, leading them to misidentify Phoebes, Palm Warblers, and yes, even Spotted Sandpipers in some cases, if the tail bobbing is the main focus.”

    For sure, it’s important to write, illustrate, and, these days, program, a field guide aimed at showing beginners how to separate flycatchers from warblers, and even flycatchers from sandpipers. For those of us, though, who have managed to get it down to flycatcher, warbler, or sandpiper–and Kirk, your good point remains valid, but I’m changing the focus here–I maintain that these behavioral distinctions, potentially so well depicted by video, are, on the whole, deserving of greater emphasis in field guides for the 2010s and beyond.

    Yes, a competent technical writer ought to be able to describe a behavior in a few short words of telegraphic prose. I agree with you on that. But it’s even easier to describe a plumage than a behavior. Does that mean we don’t need illustrations and photos in our field guides? Most people would say no to that.

    What we need–and I think you’re getting to that in your last paragraph–are useful, not merely aesthetically pleasing, videos. Somebody’s gonna make a compilation of ~750 such short videos, and, voila, we’ll have the first truly important new North American field guide of the 2010s.

  • Ted Floyd

    A bit of counterpoint, if I may, to myself.

    I don’t want to give the impression that a video, all by itself, is sufficient for making the ID. A well-illustrated traditional field guide is only as good as the words and symbols that tell you what to look at in the photos and illustrations. Even more so, audio (cf. benefits from actual text–as so many of us have trouble making sense of the multiple megabytes of data sung in in the songs of sparrows, vireos, robins, and so forth.

    So, yes, bring on the video field guide. And make sure you have a good writer!

  • Norm Ellstrand

    I hate to write this but as I looked at and read the quiz for the first time (yesterday), the first thing that popped to mind was the if an empid justified a video, then there’s really only one in the US where a video would be helpful, yes? Gray Flycatcher.

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