aba events
Nikon Monarch 7

    Shades of Gray (and Brown)

    I wrote recently that I admire authors who shake things up, who take us outside our comfort zones, who upset the apple cart. Hence, my admiration for Jerry Liguori, Brian Sullivan, and Peter Pyle. All three are well known in the birding community. All three have written for Birding magazine. In fact, all three have bylines in the July/August 2013 issue of Birding.

    Over the years, those three, each in their own way, have challenged me to reexamine some of my basic assumptions about bird identification. Despite their differences of opinion (more on that in a moment), they’ve come at me—again, each in their own way—with a unified message. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes like this: “Look carefully at birds. One bird at a time. One feather tract at a time. You’ll learn stuff you never knew. You might even learn stuff nobody ever knew.”

    That message applies with particular force to the widespread, common, and basically “easy” birds. Birds like Mallards, Red-tailed Hawks, and American Robins. Pay attention—really, pay attention—to those birds, and you’ll be amazed by all the stuff you didn’t know.

    Which brings me to the matter of Northern Harriers. As you’ll see on the pages of the print version of the current issue of Birding (July/August 2013, pp. 10–13), Peter Pyle offers one version of harrier identification, while Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan offer another. Simply put, they disagree.

    Fine. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. These three have gotten me to look anew at Northern Harriers.

    Until recently, I would have told you that Northern Harriers are widespread, common, and basically “easy.” Accipiters and juvenile buteos are hard, but not harriers. With its facial disk and white rump, distinctive body shape and flight style, and preference for open habitats, the Northern Harrier is usually a cinch to ID.

    True, there are different plumages. Check out any general field guide to the birds of North America, and you’ll see depicted three discrete plumages: juvenile, adult female, and adult male. It’s so easy: robin-redbreast juveniles, streaky brown adult females, and “gray ghosts” (the adult males).

    Except it’s not true.

    Males after their first year are almost infinitely variable. A few of them are the classic pearl–gray. But others are largely brown. Many others are intermediate. On top of the variation in color, there’s variation in pattern: Male harriers are variably streaky, blotchy, and plain.

    13-2-09-01 [Fig 1]

    How old are these Northern Harriers, and what sex(es) are they? Photos by (c) Jerry Liguori.

     

    Can we make sense out of this variation? That’s where Pyle differs from Liguori and Sullivan. See for yourself: Read Liguori and Sullivan’s original article in Birding, then read the commentaries from Pyle and from Liguori and Sullivan. Then go out and do what all three of them are exhorting us to do: Go outside and actually look at real, live harriers. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised and humbled at the learning experience.

    Thanks, Brian, Jerry, and Peter, for opening our eyes to all the variation, complexity, and subtle beauty of Northern Harriers.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Ted Floyd

    Ted Floyd

    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)

    • http://nemesisbird.com/ Drew Weber

      And this is why Birding is awesome.

    Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
    If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
    Read More »

    Recent Comments

    Categories

    Authors

    Archives

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    • Open Mic: My First Breeding Bird Survey August 12, 2014 8:22
      When I got asked to go on my first Breeding Bird Survey with one of our areas top birders, I jumped at the opportunity! I met Katie Koch, a US Fish and Wildlife Service bird biologist at 4:45am. That was the earliest time I've been birding by 15 minutes. […]
    • What to Do When You Feel Under the Weather at Bird Camp August 6, 2014 6:47
      Imagine you are at a bird camp. Camp Chiricahua, for instance. Maybe this year. Maybe even this week. You are having lots of fun making new friends, seeing lots of cool birds, and traveling to all sorts of awesome places. But with all this activity and excitement, you start wearing yourself down. […]
    • Young Birder Blog Birding #31 August 1, 2014 5:45
      July is often a difficult month for birders, but the month has come to an end. For many birds, breeding season is long gone and preparation for fall migration have begun. […]

    Follow ABA on Twitter

    Nature Blog Network