Dead bird quiz answers

9 02 2009

As anticipated, it was a southerner who immediately recognized these two birds. Georgia artist, birder, and bird-blogger Lydia Thompson (check out the link to her blog, Coastal Georgia Birding, on the right of your screen) shot back her answer right away. Indeed, Bird A is an immature Black Skimmer, and Bird B is a Laughing Gull.

Bird A) Immature Black Skimmer

Bird A) Immature Black Skimmer

The Black Skimmer is a fascinating bird with a unique way of feeding. The asymmetrical beak of the Skimmer features a lower bill (mandible) that protrudes beyond the tip of the upper bill (maxilla). The bird uses this bizarre anatomy to fly just above the surface of the water with the lower bill partially submerged. When the bill strikes a prey item, it automatically snaps shut. Because this system does not rely on visual detection of prey, Black Skimmers are capable of feeding in dim light and even overnight, which they do frequently.

Black Skimmer in flight (photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Black Skimmer in flight (photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

While Black Skimmers are sighted rarely as far north as the Gulf of Maine, and are seen in the summer months along the shores of New Jersey and Long Island, they are most strongly associated with southern coasts where they can be seen in large flocks year round.

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Bird B) Laughing Gull

Our second bird, a Laughing Gull found in December, presents a bit of a challenge in terms of age determination. The photo provided in the quiz tells part of the story; the bird’s mantle (back) is all gray with no brown scalloping remaining on the wings. This means the bird is not a first-winter bird. That leaves either a second-winter bird or an adult in winter plumage. There are a few clues that would point one toward the answer. The first is the bill. A winter adult shows a vermilion red tip to the bill while a second-winter bird will have an entirely black bill. The bird in our photo appears to have an all black bill, but the angle and lighting make it difficult to say for sure. An additional clue can be found in the primaries.

In an adult bird in winter plumage, the primaries will show

Bird B's ventral surface showing the all-black primary tips.

Bird B's ventral surface showing the all-black primary tips.

clear white tips. While the primaries are not visible in the photo provided in this quiz, an additional photo of the bird’s ventral surface shows that this bird’s primaries are all black. Based on that, this bird appears to be an immature in its second winter.

Like the Black Skimmer, the Laughing Gull is also resident along coasts throughout the south. The Laughing Gull, however, breeds all along the New England shores through Maine and is a familiar sight along our northern shores in the summer.

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