Click image to enlarge.

Unlike recent quizzes, I first discuss the results of the previous quiz (February 2019). I feel the need to do such because, with the recent addition of a comments field for the quiz, I got a snarky comment regarding last month’s quiz:

“You are making a mockery out of bird quizzes.”

Now, I’m not sure to what this prize-winning comment author objected, as that facet was not stipulated. However, I have come up with a few options that might explain this person’s ire: 1) the lack of a head on the quiz bird, 2) the humor (granted, weak) that I try to impart in much of my writing, or 3) that this person considered the quiz photo far too easy.

I admit that there may well be other possibilities that I cannot divine, however, I’ll go with these three. If the first is correct, then, perhaps, the comment writer never sees birds in which the head is hidden. In my own experience, this is an all-too-common phenomenon, so I have learned that identifying birds without reference to the head means that one might ID many more birds. If the second, I apologize, but that’s just my nature and you will all just have to put up with it. However, if the third is the cause of the snarky comment’s author, then that person seems not to understand the focus of the ABA online quiz. At least for me, I see the quiz as instructing on many of the processes of HOW birds are identified; it matters little to me what the bird is or how difficult or easy that bird might be to identify, either in the quiz photo or in the field. Spend enough time in the field with a large variety of other birders and one should see many situations in which a particular bird is correctly identified by a less-skilled birder when it was mis-identified by a more-skilled observer. There are many possible causes of such a situation, but relative experience with the species in question is nearly always involved there somewhere.

Thus, I see the ABA online quiz primarily as a way to reach a large audience and instruct on how to look more carefully and more methodically at birds in order to arrive at correct identifications, as this is the aspect of birding where I see most failing when making mis-identifications. Of course, like all experienced birders, I make mistakes in the field, too, but I like to think that I have greatly reduced the percentage of birds that I have mis-identified, particularly in the last couple of decades, relative to earlier in my life, and I attribute that to two factors: 1) more experience with more individuals of more species and 2) using many more characters on which to base my IDs.

So, I see the ABA online quiz not as a way to challenge the knowledge and skill set of the uber-birders. Instead, I see it as a way to stretch the minds of those of a variety of skill and experience levels, hoping to encourage them to pay more attention to individual birds, even if such birds belong to locally abundant species. Not even the most uber of uber-birders has as much experience with every species in the ABA Area as does everyone else. As example, relative to probably all of the ABA-Area uber-birders, I have almost certainly seen more Kirtland’s Warblers in a wider array of appearances, thanks to working on the species in Michigan in a summer and fall way back when. But, then, I have seen only one Murphy’s Petrel (and that a long way away) and exactly zero Ross’s Gulls.

The take-home message is that no single birder knows all there is to know about the ID of all bird species and even the highly experienced among us might learn a tidbit from me or anyone else about even really common species. Thus, I utilize a wide variety of difficulty factors in the photos that I use in the quiz. Some photos are difficult solely because the species is difficult to ID (e.g., Empidonax flycatchers) and some because of the posture captured in the photo. If the comment writer thinks that last month’s quiz was too easy, perhaps that person will have a different feeling for this month’s quiz photo.

Finally, in this long-winded preamble, I would like to discuss nomenclature – that is, the names of birds and how all of us write them. Every ABA online quiz comes with this statement:

“Please submit the correct Common or English name exactly as it appears in the ABA Checklist.”

I have added emphasis on the adverb in that sentence, because the rest of this preamble treats that word. ABA uses an internal test of nomenclature to account each submission of species solution as correct or not correct. To be “correct” one not only has to guess the correct species, but that test also gauges most aspects of how the species name is written.

Of the 586 responses to last month’s quiz, 521 indicated Northern Mockingbird in some fashion or other. That means, of course, that >10% of responses were completely wrong (a fact that might surprise our aforementioned snarky-comment author), though a few did provide the correct species, but in the comments field, not in the species field. A total of 22 species were provided as solutions to that quiz. I only rarely use a difficult-enough photo in the ABA online photo quiz that causes almost no correct respondents. I generally do not use such unless there is a particular feature that I wish to highlight that seems poorly known or unknown. However, in previous iterations of the ABA online photo quiz and on the one that I used to run for the Colorado Field Ornithologists, there were prizes for being correct and in both of those quizzes, getting the species name EXACTLY correct (as per the rules) was a critical factor in assigning the prize to the winner. Thus, you might be interested to know that there were 27 variations provided of Northern Mockingbird, including various typographical and accidental mis-spelling errors, extra spaces, and missing capitalization. Since I have already used up more than enough bandwidth, I will not provide a table of such, but there is, of course, only one truly correct answer.

Now, on to the March 2019 quiz photo.

As in many of my quiz photos, our subject bird is flying, and flying away at that. In reality, we would have little time to come up with an identification unless the bird changed course. Since we have a static image, we have some considerable amount of time to solve the ID problem. The few features that we can assess are the general coloration of the underside of the wings and the top side of the tail. We can tell that the bird has a bill, but only the very tip sticks beyond the chest and it is impossible to discern how long that bill is or even its gross shape, though it is probably not very short and very thick. We can see a tiny bit of the back and that looks brownish. The remiges (flight feathers on the wing = primaries and secondaries) seem to have contrastingly darker tips and these tips seem to get darker distally (away from the body), but that last might be just an artifact of the photo. Those same remiges seem to have some whiter aspect to them that cause the appearance of rectangles of white surrounded by gray. The only other possibly useful clue is that the wings look narrow for their length.

Care to take a stab at it?

What species is this?

Photos and answers are supplied by Tony Leukering, a freelance ornithologist based in the Tampa Bay area, with strong interests in bird migration, distribution, and identification. He has worked for four different bird observatories from coast to coast and considers himself particularly adept at taking quiz photos (that is, bad pictures!). Leukering is a member of the Colorado Bird Records Committee, and reviews Colorado and Wyoming eBird data. He is also interested in most everything else that flies, particularly moths and odonates.