What's That Bird?
by Mike Lushington
In response to a suggestion the other day (It doesn't take much to get me going, I guess), I have decided to run a miniseries of columns on backyard bird identification tips. This is the time of year when I do get questions about this bird or that that has just shown up at a feeder or on the backyard lawn (even if it is still covered with snow). Birds are moving, and young birds, those who are into their first spring as breeding adults (or hopefuls, at any rate) are exploring territory that they might hope to make their own. Some are lost, but others are extending boundaries for their kind; they may actually be the first successful breeders of their kind in the area.
A case in point: my good friend Kenny Reinsborough has had an Eastern Phoebe in his yard for a few days now as I write this column (on April 17). This is a species of flycatcher that one would not normally expect to see in these regions for at least another month, but it seems to be doing well. It is almost certainly a young male, looking for new territory; phoebes are among the first of the flycatchers to migrate north each year and have obviously established habits that allow them to survive where others of their kind would not. In that, they are rather like Tree swallows, the first migrants of that particular group of birds. And that observation leads me into suggestions that a beginning birder (one who suspects that he or she might actually become really interested in the hobby) might find useful.
Over the years, I have nurtured a habit of always having a bird guide at hand, near my work station and also near my favorite loafing-around spot ( I have several of them). I often pick up one and simply glance through it, especially at these times of the year when birds are on the move, focusing on those birds that I might expect to see. At the same time - and this is important, I think - I am always reviewing what it is that I want to look for when I am considering our familiar birds. Right now, I want to remember exactly what are the distinguishing marks for Song sparrow or for Northern junco, two species that I might expect to see daily (and am, right now) so that if something different appears, I realize that it is different and can pay it special attention. Kenny, Jim Clifford, and others have reported Fox sparrow within the past few days - birds that they might simply have overlooked had they not been familiar with what to look for in the "to-be-expected" species.
Becoming familiar with what to expect at any time of the year allows one to realize that the bird in question at any given moment does not fit into that category. Having done some homework over the years on birds that are to be encountered in different seasons and under different circumstances allows one to suspect, at the very least, that, despite the odds, the bird that one is looking at just might be ... an out-of-season flycatcher? Once that gets narrowed down, the question becomes - what particular flycatcher? Well, those bird guides all agree that Eastern phoebe is among the very earliest spring migrants in its particular family. Further, this species is found here every year. Further again, this species often is to be found around barns, orchards, and other features of old farms. Even without the several photos that Kenny was able to take, a knowledgeable birder would conclude that, based on reading and familiarization with local birds, this would be a logical guess - and, as it turns out, the correct one.