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Who was that?

Who was that?
By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Do you know what type of bird this is? Check out Ranger Steve’s tips on what to look for. Answer is in the article. Photo from the Audobon.org field guide.

Do you know what type of bird this is? Check out Ranger Steve’s tips on what to look for. Answer is in the article. Photo from the Audobon.org field guide.

A brown sparrow-sized bird captured my attention. A luminescent white shown from its throat. Narrow black lines framed the white on sides and bottom. Have you identified the bird? Noticing key field marks, in a short time, is often essential because many birds do not stay in easy view. 

The bird was in the willow thicket at Ody Brook. Several were present. It was early October when flocks of birds move through on a southward journey. I could eliminate most choices. Clearly, it was not waterfowl, and shorebirds tend to be along water edges or wading, so I can rule those out, except for possibly the Killdeer. Killdeers have departed, so that is not a likely choice. Shorebirds, like killdeer, stay mostly on the ground and this bird was on a shrub branch.

Large birds like gulls, grouse, hawks, and doves do not fit this observation. When trying to identify, narrow choices by selecting from a sparrow, robin, or crow-size. Then consider habitat and eliminate waterfowl, if you are in a forest or shrubland. Some waterfowl, like wood ducks, could be in a tree, so do not be so absolute that you rule out those you are looking at. Some species are unlikely to be in Michigan, so you can eliminate species restricted to dry arid deserts along the Mexico/US border, or other habitats not found in Michigan.

There are good bird field guides for Michigan, Eastern North America, and North America north of Mexico. Some popular Michigan bird field guides are incomplete so I suggest getting one that is most inclusive, instead of only having common birds. Some guides are much better than others.

The bird in question moved from the willow to a speckled alder. It faced me, showing a plain gray breast with no striping. Its bill was short and thick. Eliminate birds with thin bills like warblers and kinglets as well as flycatchers that have long point bills. Have you figured out the bird from the characters provided?

As the bird looked at me from the alder branch and turned its head, I could see white stripes on its head running from the beak to the back of the head. A neon yellow spot between the bill and eyes was evident in the sunlight. In shade, the yellow was not obvious. Perhaps you have figured it out now. If not, pause here, get a bird field guide, and find a sparrow-sized bird, with white stripes on the head, yellow by the bill and eye, white throat, thick short bill, plain gray breast, brown back and legs for perching on twigs.

Check if the bird you are considering is here all year or migrates. If it migrates, is it here in summer, or does it nest farther north, in places like the boreal forest? This bird happens to be a boreal nester so we would not see it during the summer months. That is not evident from our current observation, but maybe you noticed a bird with such a description was not seen all summer.

It has one of the most beautiful songs but is usually quiet during fall migration. Its musical song is a favorite sign of spring and offers wonderful joy to one’s spirit when heard. Sometimes one will let loose its song in fall or part of its song. It is described as reminiscent of the words “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” and belongs to the white-throated sparrow. Canadians prefer “Oh My, Canada, Canada, Canada.”

Start with yard birds you regularly see in your neighborhood nature niche to discover unique feather color patterns, size, bill, and leg characteristics. Many birds change plumage with the seasons, but some do not. I enjoy watching birds in the yard and at the feeder more than television so I usually wait to watch TV until after dark. Listening to music CDs is a nighttime pleasure also, so as not to interfere with the activity and music abounding from the depths of the wild sanctuary where I live.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net. Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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