Late summer brings scruffy birds only a bird geek could love

Calliope hummingbirds, such as this young female, are the smallest long-distance avian migrants in the world. The bird migrate north to the northern Rockis and winter in Central America and Mexico.

This molting Lincoln’s sparrow lacks the bright streaking on its chest that is shown in most guide-book photos. Fall-migrating birds often look different from the spring , making it more difficult to make positive field identifications.

Last week’s article about fall bird migration sparked some interesting responses, among them notes from birders Jacob Cooper and Jackson Trappett.

You will recall those two spent one day last week birding on Pinyon Mesa and not surprisingly Trappett, who is a talented bird photographer, sent along photos of several birds he and Copper saw during their travels.

Of particular bird-geek interest was the photo of the Lincoln’s sparrow found on this page.

It’s not your spring-migration sort of Lincoln’s with neat (but admittedly drab) feathering highlighted by fine, dark streaks on its buff-colored breast.

Instead, Trappett’s photo show a Lincoln’s that looks decidedly post-wringer and somewhat “scruffy,” as Trappett noted in his email.

“It doesn’t look much like the Lincoln’s Sparrow in my guide book, without the streaking on the breast,” Trappett wrote.

He attributed it to the late-summer molt, which throws off many less-experienced birders.

“Sometimes (fall migration) birds can be tougher to ID because they have first year plumages, which can be quite different than adult plumages,” he wrote. “Sometimes they can also be scruffy looking if they are in the middle of a molt, which can make them look quite different than their portrait in your guide book.”

Most birds molt twice, said Coen Dexter of Nucla, and it’s important to know a bird’s molting schedule.

He gave as examples two closely related birds, a Hammond’s Flycatcher, which molts before migrating south, and a Dusky Flycatcher, which migrates first and then molts once reaching its winter grounds.

“If I see new plumage on a possible Hammond’s/Dusky Flycatcher in late August, I know it much be a Hammond’s,” he said.

Which means a fall birder needs to be familiar with bird’s coloring as well as its behavior, Cooper offered.

“Birds at this time of year are definitely in a mix of plumages or in non-breeding (plumage),” Cooper said.

“I’d say it’s important to study the shape and behavior of birds to help separate them, as this is often the most obvious and consistent field mark regardless of how they appear.”

And to throw one more wrench into the works, this time of year flocks are comprised of different age groups, with young birds sporting varied plumages.

“It’s important to realize that a wide mix of plumages can arise as all the birds molt a little differently,” Cooper wrote. “Take American Goldfinches: they are turning gray at this time of year, and can sometimes appear mottled, throwing people off.”

The fall migration offers opportunities to see birds who don’t show up in the spring. Rufous and Calliope hummingbirds, for example, in the spring migrate to the west of Colorado but in the fall head south through our state.

“The Calliope hummingbird breeds in the Rockies to the north of us,” Trappett wrote. “In the spring, most of them migrate to our west, and so we only see them on their way back south.”

His photo shows a juvenile female.

If you are interested in some hands-on birding experience, Coen Dexter and Brenda Wright will be conducting the Ouray County Fall Bird Count on 
Sept. 6-7.

Participants should meet at the Ridgway State Park Visitors Center at 8 a.m. A state parks pass is required to enter the park.

Bring binoculars and/or spotting scopes, field guides, water, lunch and appropriate clothing.

You can bird on their own or in groups and you can join one day or both days.

Stops will include Billie Creek State Wildlife Area, Ridgway Reservoir, Box Canyon and other birdy spots.

For more information and to indicate your anticipated participation, email Coen Dexter at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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