Dead Bird Quiz answers

17 12 2013

Alright, so Bird C was a gimme–big yellow raptor feet, black body, white head and tail: gotta be an adult Bald Eagle, and so it was. Gil, who found the bird, reports to us that the carcass was transferred to US Fish and Wildlife via North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Birds A and B, being incomplete (mere wings, in fact) presented greater challenges to our intrepid quiz players. Bird A, on first glance appeared tricky. A dark wing covered in sand, it was a bit hard to make out the identity of the species based on the upper wing photo. Fortunately, we had a closeup of the details of the underwing, which was light overall, but with a small brownish line of feathers near the wrist. That appearance is distinctive and marks this bird as an American Black Duck. Fortunately, you needn’t take my word for it, since both John Stanton and Wouter van Gestel rang in and concurred on that one.

Bird B: White arrow points to the long, luxurious tertials that mark it as not a Dovekie, which has short, businesslike ones.

Bird B: White arrow points to the long, luxurious tertials that mark it as not a Dovekie, which has short, businesslike ones.

Bird B was a tricky one and not a species we see reported everyday. At first glance, it appears we have a nondescript dark wing with a slightly lighter, though still gray, underwing. Plain dark wings with dark undersides generally bring a short list of possibilities to mind: ducks (surf scoters and black scoters, for instance) and cormorants. But in this case, there was one marking that leads us in a different direction. Looking at that underwing, one can see a whitish color to the ends of the secondary feathers. So, now we have a dark upper wing, dark underwing, but with some white to the secondaries. In our upcoming Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern U.S., I’ve devised a key to severed wings, and when I use that guide on our Bird B, it takes me to Dovekie, which wouldn’t be a bad guess, except for some outstanding discrepancies. First, based on the ruler in the photo of Bird B’s wing, the wing chord is too long to be a Dovekie, which have very small wings (11-13 cm). Our Bird B looks to be in the 18-20cm range instead. Also, if you look at the underside of Bird B’s wing, you can see the primaries are dark, the secondaries have a white band, and the tertials are rather long, protruding well past the secondaries. This is typical of many duck species, but also of a bird that does not appear in the new Field Guide primarily because it’s not truly a seabird. The American Coot is, I would posit, the most likely identity of this bird. I am bolstered in my opinion by that of Gil Grant, who found it, and also thought it was a coot, and by Wouter, who said the same.

American Coots are not typically on my mind when I’m reviewing SEANET walks. It’s not that we don’t have them up here in New England, but they just aren’t regular finds (though a little farther south, Jerry Golub in New Jersey has found several in his tenure with us). This Bird B was a good reminder of how even unusual birds can be accurately identified: first, look at the specimen and see if it fits with a common species. If yes, you’re probably all set. But if there are characteristics that don’t jive with your list of usual suspects, focus on those details and see where they lead. Sometimes, it might be right down the path to the elusive and secretive coot.

American Coots in action with wings still attached. (Photo: Wing-chi Poon)

American Coots in action with wings still attached. (Photo: Wing-chi Poon)

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