Friday, June 20, 2008

Look-alikes Can Fool Birders

For the beginning birder, look-alikes are tormenting.

First, let's take the house finch and the purple finch. The purple finch, of course, is not in the Central Savannah River Area except during winter months but a beginner might not know this and will confuse the two finches.

Arriving in our area in late November and early December, the purple finch is a purplish rosy-red, while the color of the house finch is usually a bright fire-truck red. The male purple finch looks as if he's been dipped in "cranberry juice", giving his brown feathered back an overall purplish look. The rosy color of the purple finch's throat and breast blend into the white of the belly. The brown-backed house finch has a brown-streaked breast and belly while the purple finch has a plain rosy breast.

Female purple finches have a distinct face patch defined by a whitish eyebrow line and cheekstripe. They are heavily streaked overall with dark brown on a white background.

Female house finches have light brown streaks on a beige background and lack the eyebrow line and cheek stripe and are slimmer.

Other look-alikes are the mockingbird and the loggerhead shrike, both permanent residents of the Central Savannah River Area. Though both birds are gray and white, and both have solid white breasts and gray wings with white patches, the grays are different shades.

The shrike's gray is almost a charcoal color while the mockingbird's feathers are a soft, light gray. The mockingbird has a slim bill. The shrike's is dark, short and hooked. Another distinguishing field mark of the shrike is the black eye mask. And he is a stouter bird than the mockingbird, though not as long.

Summer tanagers are solid red, sometimes with a dark washing on the wings and tail. The trouble here are the females, with the summer tanager looking much like the female orchard oriole, both summer residents of this area. Both are yellow, though in slightly different shades. Oriole beaks are dark, sturdy and pointed. Tanager beaks are not as long as the oriole's and are blunt at the tip and are whitish in color. The female orchard oriole has grayish wings with white wingbars. Wingbars on the tanager are hardly noticeable.

The wood thrush is a summer visitor, the hermit thrush a winter tourist. Usually, the wood thrush is on his way to Central America before the hermit arrives for the winter, though sometimes they meet in the South long enough to say "hello". Both thrushes are brown-backed, with off-white, brown-spotted breasts. Look at the head and tail to distinguish the two. The wood thrush has a reddish-brown head, with duller brown on the wings, back and tail. The hermit thrush has a reddish-brown tail, with the remainder of its body a duller brown.

There are two wrens that you might see around your place during the colder months . . . our State bird, the Carolina wren and the little mousy winter wren. The winter wren is much smaller than the Carolina, with a short, stubby tail, grayish-brown back and barred belly. The Carolina's back is reddish-brown and its belly is buffy, not white, and it has a strong eye line. There's little risk that these two wrens will be confusing.