This photo, by itself, isn’t all that hard. We’ll even tell you what it is: It’s an Eastern Phoebe. But there’s a hitch. Of course. The quiz question isn’t: What’s this bird? Instead: What bird is the Eastern Phoebe frequently mistaken for, especially in winter?
Tony Leukering, bird ID expert and general ponderer of how birders think, invites us in the August 2016 Birding to consider “The Most Underused ID Feature” of all: time of year. If you know when flycatchers show up in the ABA Area, you would never, ever, confuse a winter Eastern Phoebe with, well, anything. That’s because, in many places where phoebes winter, like North Carolina, they’re the only birds that look like phoebes. Phoebe lookalikes–Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Kingbird, Traill’s Flycatcher, etc.–simply aren’t around in winter.
But not everybody knows that. And that’s Leukering point. The phoebe situation is fairly straightforward. But other cases are not. In his commentary in the August issue, Leukering reviews for us various “confusing” IDs that really aren’t confusing at all–if you just look at a calendar. These include winter Chipping Sparrows (try American Tree Sparrow), early Orange-crowned Warblers (also known as Tennessee Warbler), and late juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers (probably Long-billed). And others.
Needless to say, Leukering’s commendably short and readable commentary doesn’t touch on every instance in which time of year is valuable to the ID process. So here’s our question: What are examples from your own neck of the woods where simply paying attention to the calendar can clear up what might otherwise be a gnarly ID problem?