Fall is a time of great transition in the bird world. Summer birds are still leaving, winter birds are arriving, and migratory birds are passing through.
As fall gives way to winter, you will notice that the plumage – or coloration and markings – of some wild bird species is different from their summer, or breeding, plumage. In late summer, most bird species molt, losing their old, worn feathers, and grow new feathers just in time for migration and winter weather.
Individuals new to birding may find that this seasonal change in plumage adds a level of complexity and difficulty when trying to identify birds. Depending upon what bird book you are using, when you look up a bird in a field guide the image often used is of a male in breeding plumage.
The problem, though, is: How often, when you are looking out the window, are you looking at a male in breeding plumage? Perhaps you are looking at the same species, but in winter plumage; or maybe you are looking at a female or a juvenile.
In my column, I frequently refer to the Sibley Guide. One reason I like this particular field guide is because the illustrator provides examples of not only adult males in breeding plumage, but also of females, juveniles and winter plumage. He even shows regional variation in plumage for species that occur over large geographical areas.
A good example of a bird species that experiences a significant change between its breeding plumage and its winter, non-breeding plumage is the American goldfinch. Males in breeding plumage are a beautiful bright lemon-yellow and jet black color. In winter, the very same bird is drab and fairly non-descript.
Learning the art and skill of bird identification is made easier if you have a good field guide and a good pair of binoculars. I recommend keeping a bird book and binoculars readily at hand so you are ready when an unusual or new bird shows up in your feeding area.
When you see a new bird, resist the temptation to go to the book too quickly. Not knowing how long the bird will stay, take the time to really study it with binoculars. Look for identifying markings. What color is it? What size is it? Does it have an eye ring, or wing-bars, or an eye stripe? What is the shape of its beak? What is its behavior? After you have gotten a good look, then go to your field guide.
Here at the Bird Barn I really enjoy helping individuals identify “new” birds they have seen in their yard. In the past week, I have confirmed the ID of a male vermilion flycatcher at Antelope Hills, a magnificent hummingbird at a private residence in Cliff Rose, and a curve-billed thrasher in Dewey.
One of the things that I really like about birding is that you never know what might show up in your yard.
Last week, while working at the Sedona store, I got a phone call from a customer who said she thought she had a western screech owl in her yard. Sedona store manager Dena and I jumped in her car and drove over to the customer’s home to confirm the identification. When we arrived, sure enough, there was a western screech owl in a pyracantha bush!
This Saturday, Nov. 2, I will be leading a free guided bird walk to Willow Lake. If you are interested in participating, call the store at 443-5900 to sign up.
Until next week, Happy Birding!