Saturday, August 14, 2010

Homer Simpson Is A Birder - Blue-headed Vireo & Yellow warbler

Female Yellow Warbler - Phippsburg, Maine  August 2010
     I have a dilemma. I posted these photographs to the Maine Bird List Serve (an Internet reporting service for birding enthusiasts) asking if it was a Tennessee Warbler. Because the bird looks olive green to me, I was thrown and floundering on the identification. The color threw me completely. I was told by numerous respondents that it is a female Yellow warbler. I've seen lots of Yellow Warblers and have photographed many of them, so I didn't think that was it. I spent a fair amount of time wading through bird guides before I posed my question to the larger audience. To give you an idea of how complicated this is I have included one of the responses I received -

"The bird Robin photographed is a female Yellow Warbler. Note the decurved culmen and rather stout bill typical of the genus Dendroica and unlike the nearly straight and sharply pointed bill of Tennessee (genus Oreothylpis, formerly Vermivora). The bird is short-tailed and has yellow edging to tail feathers and the wing; it has a paler yellow eyering; and, unlike Tennessee, bright yellow through out the underparts."

     Now, doesn't that just give you a headache? And admit it, you didn't read the whole thing, short as it is. That's okay. I'm a devoted birder and yet, I too find some of it pretty tedious. My reaction probably accounts for my failure to get it right a lot of the time, too. Warblers at this time of year are a significant challenge because they are wearing non breeding plumage. They are also migrating, so there are more of them including juveniles, headed south.
     My dilemma is that I do want to know what the birds are, but so often, I can't figure it out, so I want to keep asking the experts. Responses to my questions like these, "It's THAT would be a hint," and "Look it up," indicate to me that my questions are annoying. Do ya think? I guess you never get too old to ask a question which someone more knowledgeable will regard as a stupid question. So, should I keep putting it out there just how dumb I am, or keep asking the questions?

Blue-headed vireo eating a Cicada, Phippsburg, Maine August 2010

Blue-headed vireo eating a Mountain ash berry, Phippsburg, Maine August 2010

     Which brings me to this bird. I was pretty sure it was an American redstart. My inclination was that it was a female, or that it could be a first year. I felt pretty pumped up and big for my britches that I had figured that out, too. The head shape and spectacles made me nervous, though. Yes, nervous. Shouldn't birding and photography be fun first, anxiety provoking second? My palms were sweating as I put the question out to the list serve. I reflexively pulled the collar of my shirt away from my neck. I coughed. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. I felt a hive welting up. I grabbed a paper bag and pulled it down over my head to stop the hyperventilation I could not control. My head was reeling as I hit send. And of course, I was wrong. In less then twenty-four hours, I committed to the wrong bird! Aachararrrrrrrghhhhh! Being the Homer Simpson of birding, I slapped my head, "N-DOH!"
     At least this was not one I had ever seen before. It is a Blue-headed vireo. There are fifteen species of vireos. Three of them, Plumbeous, Cassin's and Blue-headed look very much alike. In the past, they were lumped together as all one species, the Solitary vireo. Blue-headeds are the eastern most of the three and they like coniferous forests which the other two don't care for so much. Vireos are about 4 1/2 inches head to tail. Their pronounced spectacles are one of their primary identifying features. They are primarily insect eaters though they do eat some fruit. They are migratory in Maine and head to Mexico and Central America when it gets cold which makes them smarter than me and Homer Simpson.

Thanks to David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide To Birds and for some of the information.

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  1. Hi Robin. Keep's one way to learn. I agree that some responses can be disheartening; they should take it as a compliment that you bothered to ask for help and at least be civil.

    I can appreciate your dilemma with 'fall' warblers as I clearly remember watching many juveniles at Cape May and even the dedicated experts were calling 'BayPoll' to cover their options! Plus you have far many more species to sift through than over here...lucky you or not as the case may be. Have fun. FAB.

  2. Robin, I have been in your spot many times before. The simplest way is to post your photo in the ID forum of You'll get plenty of advice from expert birders and are never made to feel stupid. I love your photos of the Blue-headed Vireo!

  3. Thank you, Hilke. That's a very useful piece of information. I'll check that out. Cheers!

  4. FAB, thank you so much. I'll keep asking because I can't help myself! Yours Truly, Homer

  5. Why, Robin--I didn't know you wrote humor! I laughed out loud at some of this! I've never been a birder, can't name anything other than a male cardinal, a robin, a woodpecker (if he's pecking), a martin (if he's catching bugs in midair)--and a crow. What can I say--I'm a city girl born and bred. When I lived in WI, I got to know grouse because they kept wandering into my yard. Walking. I never saw any of them fly. Oh--and when I used to go to the beach in NC's Outer Banks, I knew sandpipers and pelicans and seagulls (of course).

    I absolutely LOVE your photography, Robin. It truly takes my breath away (fortunately it comes back pretty quickly so I don't have to hit my panic button). And your commentary here is priceless! Thanks for posting this! I love to laugh!

    Rated. D

  6. As a long-time birder with no eye for detail (a significant disadvantage, I'm sure you'll recognize) and the desire but not the ability to take pictures such as yours, I am impressed by your photos and your painstaking search for The Truth. Personally, I love birds but think they are very annoying creatures for not coming with labels.

    If they did, I would know the identity of current backyard visitors (SE Pennsylvania), two brown and black robin-sized birds with white feathers on either side of the tail, which flick their tails open and closed frequently while feeding on the ground. A friend has said they're female rose-breasted grosbeaks, but I ain't buyin': tails are far too long, for one thing, and the coloration (per Sibley) is wrong for another.

    Great pix, and happy birding!
    August 14, 2010 05:31 PMOh, and I meant to ask, did you ever see the old, old Peterson Guide--the one where his page of warblers is titled "Confusing Fall Warblers"? Well, he calls them that for a reason.
    August 14, 2010 05:33 PMThank you so much AtHomePilgrim for

  7. I am immensely impressed with your photos which are magic to me with their clarity and delight in birds. In our last communication you voiced interest in my baby sparrow and bemoaned your lack of success in raising baby birds. Perhaps I am lucky but my sparrow, raised from a baby, is now almost 6 years old and doing fine. He has a large cage but it remains open and it is merely his home territory in my one room apartment. He eats almost everything I eat and particularly enjoys scrambled eggs, broiled fish, and some of the stews I make with boiled potatoes and vegetable and fish. And, of course, his branches of seeds which he gobbles regularly.

    The sparrow was a problem at first . I had to pressure its jaw to open its beak and, with tweezers jab in a few bits of raw meat soaked in honey and water for liquid. But now he sits quietly in my hand and gobbles down large quantities of the meat and honey three or four times a day. I at first thought he might be a swift so I named him Tom but as he developed his outer tail feathers lengthened into the characteristic swallow pattern.

    I had hoped he would start to fly so I could think about releasing him as he seems quite bright and alert but he merely sits in his cardboard box lined with facial tissues and looks out my window through a cellophane window in the side of his box or sleeps. I have tossed him on my bed to see if he would fly since his wings seem well developed but he merely walks around on his short legs or just sits. I may have to keep him as the Helsinki winters are quite severe and there are not that many flying insects in this area. Anyway, he seems quite healthy and he is eating very well.
    I could send you a picture if I had your e-mail address since pictures don't go with these messages. My e-mail is

  8. Now if you asked the guy who does odd jobs for me, he would tell you it's a "canary". (and, of course, gold finches and all yellow birds are canaries! LOL)

    Aaaaa-mazing photos of the vireo with the insect and the berry.

  9. By the way, Robin... Out of curiosity, I did some research on the Sphinx/Clearwing moth. Looks like you were right!

    (I left a comment back on your August 8th, SUPERMOTH Post to explain.)

  10. Very interesting.! Warbler is a warbler no matter what the color huh...!

    I couldn’t tell ya. I don’t know my birds that well Donie does .. I know a few.

  11. sharon f in west kAugust 16, 2010 at 1:30 PM

    I have found thru the years that the Maine List Serve has changed its character a bit. Seems more scientific/technical nowadays and less focused on everyday/backyard observations. I enjoy learning about what is right around me and having those questions answered; the patience for that kind of inquiry has decreased over time-respondents used to be very congenial, etc. Ah well, the times they are a-changing..
    By the way, you don't know a solitary vireo when you see it!!?? My other problem is that I use the old names I learned 40+ years ago...oh well...Great pics. Sharon in West K

  12. Sharon, thanks for the support. I agree, in the time I've been participating in the list serve, the tone has changed to a drier, less friendly one. It's unfortunate that anyone should feel intimidated or unwelcome. Some of us have seen rare birds and shared that with the list. Had we not, the birds' presence would never have been known to others on the list.

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