American Birding Podcast



Another Look at the February 2019 Birding Photo Quiz

For this photo quiz we just threw a couple of interesting things up there, that whizzed through our computer screens, before we had a chance to analyze them, and we will now react to the comments we received on The ABA Blog. We both had some initial preconceived thoughts, some aligning with those of posters at the blog and some not. Tell us what you think of this format for the photo quiz!

Let’s start with the easier one, the duck, which we still think is a duck. Our initial thoughts were that Bufflehead was involved, and this was a conclusion reached by several posters as well. But why the funny head pattern? Is it a hybrid? Is it molting? Is it in alternate (eclipse) plumage? Is it an older female gaining male-like plumage as in our Wood Duck Photo Quiz from October of last year? But first let’s admit to some perfidy. Ted learned his lesson once, not changing the filename of a quiz photo, which easily revealed the bird’s identity once downloaded and saved to computers for analysis. Adam Winer quickly pointed this out, suspecting that the file name “Masked-Duck. png” might be a “solid diversion,” and this was equally quickly confirmed by ABA’s Nate Swick. Are we sure it is not a Masked Duck? Well, yes. Could it be a hybrid Bufflehead x Masked Duck? Well, no (I think we can leave it at that, let alone considering their breeding and mating ranges and habitats). But what about a hybrid with something else?

Matt Igleski and John Gluth then keyed in on Bufflehead, asking similar questions about odd plumages and hybrids. We agree with them that the bird fits Bufflehead quite well in terms of structure and the wing patch (members can see photos of the wing patch here). Wing patterns are the holy grail in ducks, for both species ID and age/sex (ask any hunter who participates in “wing bees”). A look at the highly useful Slater Wing and Tail Collection, for example the wing of a young male Bufflehead here, shows a very similar pattern, the only difference being squarer and more fully white inner greater coverts and secondaries in our quiz bird, perfectly consistent with the pattern of an adult female Bufflehead. So, are there any other ducks that have this pattern? Not really. Hooded Merganser comes closest but there is less white per feather, and we would expect hybrids with these to show some semblance of a merganser bill shape. The tawny cheeks of the quiz bird might evoke thoughts of Ruddy Duck, but these lack white altogether in the wing, and a hybrid with Ruddy would likely not show a perfect Bufflehead pattern. Someone mentioned Smew (I guess that was us!), but check out the wing pattern on a female Smew (for example, at the Handbook of Birds of the World. Although our bird resembles female Smew somewhat in structure and head pattern, the wing pattern is way off from that of Bufflehead.

We agree in the end with the conclusion of Reuven_M, that this is likely just an aberrant adult female Bufflehead. The date, April 16th, pretty much precludes its being a juvenile, a female in alternate plumage, or a bird undergoing molt, and it does not show any malelike characters obtained by some older female ducks. Reuven_M helpfully posted some links to eBird checklists containing photos of similar-looking Buffleheads. Although these photos were all taken in August and thus could represent worn, molting, or alternate-plumaged birds, it does give us a sense of how anomalous plumages may manifest in a female Bufflehead.

The second passerine bird evoked thoughts of tanagers and female Painted Bunting from our commenters. Green bird, stout bill, why not? But why is the bill blackish and not orange like those of most tanagers? And if you look closely at the photos in the issue the bill is not shaped right for a Painted Bunting. You often hear the phrase “think outside the box” and the box in this case is the ABA Checklist. Consider, after all, that it was in Florida. We gave a small push to stray from the box, mentioning “Semper’s Warbler,” and the misdirectional filename “Cape-White-Eye.jpg” but the bait was left untouched. Ted and I both went straight to the genus Euphonia based on the bird’s bill, overall structure, and berry-picking posture.

My first thought was Olive-backed Euphonia (E. gouldi) given the dull olive head and upperparts and thick bill. This was one I’d seen, long ago, in Mexico, and the rest of the euphonias have steely blue and bright yellow heads and upperparts, right? Not so fast. A bit of research shows that Olive-backed Euphonias in most plumages should show orange undertail coverts, whereas this tract on our bird is bright yellow. Could it be a juvenile Olive-backed? The yellow gape might point in this direction (although, as in Painted Bunting, adult euphonias can have fleshy yellowish gapes). But even this juvenile Olive-backed at Cornell University’s Neotropical birds site seems to show a hint of orange to the undertail, and is duller overall than our photo-quiz bird. Note also this bird’s ‘fluffy’ undertail coverts, so typical of juvenile passerines. I don’t think our quiz bird is a juvenile. Indeed, the greater coverts look replaced against more worn, juvenile-looking remiges, suggesting formative plumage.

A full consideration of age and sex should always be applied (I should know!) and in looking up Olive-backed I was reminded, oh yeah, that females of the other euphonia species look nothing like males. They are generally olive above and yellow below, like our bird. Can we try and pin down species ID for the Florida bird further? Well, female euphonias out of context may be one of the more difficult IDs in the avian world, and a check of Clements indicates about 27 species of euphonias found throughout the Neotropics, and again as many subspecies. While we are fairly confident that our bird is a euphonia, it would take a lot more research time than we have right now to feel any more satisfied about species. As a starting point I’d consider a female of something in the Thick-billed Euphonia (E. laniirostris) group, based on bill shape and general abundance throughout this species’ Central and South American range. When confronted with an exotic escape such as this, species abundance in the wild is often a good factor to start with. And so we have a couple female photo-quiz birds, which we applaud in this day and age.

We thank those who commented, online and otherwise, and invite more comments on future photo-quiz birds.