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What do you do to ID a mystery bird?


Mike Hall
 

We've been sort of getting together at reported rare bird locales, but it's been a long time since I could raise questions with a knowledgeable leader or gang of birders. What do you do if you've got a list of characteristics, or even photos, that simply do not jibe with what's in the field guides? Is there a resource for birds that works like those tree finders that lead you from leaf to bark to nut until all is eliminated except your species? I imagine Merlin works like this, though in a limited way. I wouldn't know, as Merlin is for mobile devices only, and it's too large an app for my phone. Are there forums, like this one but more structured around specifics of I.D.?
I have a case study to offer (from yesterday evening, and it's kept me tied up), but first I'll wait to see what comes of this plea. Thanks!


Megan Jankowski
 

Mike, in regards to your question I think the first thing to do is determine very basically what type of bird it is: for example raptor, shorebird, duck, passerine, etc., and then try to further narrow it down. Is it a hawk or a falcon? A warbler or a sparrow? Once you have those very basics then you can start to narrow it down further by what is likely to be found in the area at that time, and then what is unlikely but possible. Book guides offer range maps, but Ebird bar charts or the Sibley app for example can give you a little more information on abundance and location down to each month.

This time of year is more complicated because we get birds that just hatched this year and do not have their distinct adult plumage, and also adult birds that are molting and are thus in transitional stages. These plumages can vary so much that a traditional ID guide can only tell you so much (if they even show them at all), and I'm not sure how well Merlin handles them either. Fall warblers can be particularly hard, and as you've seen, rare birds that you're not expecting or familiar with can be even harder. 

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/ is a good site because it shows both adult and juvenile plumage and allows you to compare similar species side by side. This works well if you sort of know the ballpark you are looking in, and allows you to narrow it down. It is usually my first spot for a tricky ID. You actually can use Merlin on your computer from this site. Click the orange "Get instant ID help" under the search bar, and a sidebar will open and it will let you put in location, date, size and color.

If you have photos then sharing them is always welcome in many places, eBird, iNaturalist, this forum, etc. and people are always happy to weigh in. Sometimes even well photographed birds can be stumpers, and very experienced people will argue over the IDs.

Megan Jankowski
Oakland 

On Mon, Sep 28, 2020 at 6:16 PM Mike Hall <h3m@...> wrote:
We've been sort of getting together at reported rare bird locales, but it's been a long time since I could raise questions with a knowledgeable leader or gang of birders.  What do you do if you've got a list of characteristics, or even photos, that simply do not jibe with what's in the field guides?  Is there a resource for birds that works like those tree finders that lead you from leaf to bark to nut until all is eliminated except your species?  I imagine Merlin works like this, though in a limited way.  I wouldn't know, as Merlin is for mobile devices only, and it's too large an app for my phone.  Are there forums, like this one but more structured around specifics of I.D.?
I have a case study to offer (from yesterday evening, and it's kept me tied up), but first I'll wait to see what comes of this plea.  Thanks!