As Inyo County coordinators for the journal NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS we receive reports from locals and visitors of sightings of birds that they believe are very rare in the county. Some of these reports are well documented, the bird was well seen by several knowledgeable and experienced observers, and perhaps the observer got lucky and was able to photograph it. These reports are evaluated by us, by the southern CA editor and sometimes by the CA Bird Records Committee (CBRC) if the species is rare in the state. Recently one county coordinator compiled a list of the most frequently misidentified species from his county and encouraged others to do the same. The result of this exercise is that often the reported rare bird has a common look-alike and the documentation did not eliminate the common bird as a possibility. While the observers should accept responsibility for their errors it must be emphasized that the best bird guides available often do not show the wide range of variation in plumages that all species have or the range maps are incorrect, and, therefore, mistaken identifications are easier to make than some would believe. While the Inyo County list of frequently misidentified species is over twenty we will cover the six most frequently occurring mistakes. First is the PURPLE FINCH which is rare in Inyo. Reports are received annually and almost every one proves to be the close relative and extremely similar Cassins Finch which is fairly common in the county. Most of these misidentifications are by visitors from back east or west of the Sierra where Purple Finch is the expected species. Even the recently released third edition of the National Geographic Societys Field Guide to the Birds of North America contributes to this problem with an incorrect range map. The illustrations, however, are accurate, and the careful observer should have no problem in a correct identification given a good view of the bird. Second is the SANDHILL CRANE, rare in Inyo, often reported feeding in flocks in alfalfa fields. A report of 37 Sandhill Cranes feeding in the fields near Fish Springs morphed into 37 Great Blue Herons by the time we and our cameras arrived. The initial observers response was the widely held misconception, But herons are always found around water and they never gather together in flocks. He is usually right about them near water, but during migration and winter they do gather together and frequently feed in alfalfa fields. When looking at a field guide you will see a distinct difference in shape; the crane has a bustle and the heron does not and the color patterns are also quite different. Third is the GRAY VIREO, a rare species known only as a summer resident in the Grapevine Mountains along the eastern border of the county. Almost all reports of Gray Vireo turn out to be the common breeding Plumbeous Vireo which is all gray and white and looks very much like a Gray. These erroneous sightings are sometimes published exacerbating the problem. A quick look at a field guide will convince many that this is a difficult pair to separate. The lack of spectacles, much fainter wing bars and, especially, a tail that is waved about like a gnatcatcher separates the Gray Vireo from any other dull grayish colored vireo. Fourth is the BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER which is restricted to the dense mesquite areas in the southeast portion of the county. This species is very local and not expected away from there. Yet many reports are received from all over the county which usually involve Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Both species have black tails from above, but it is the underside that removes any question of identification. The Blue-gray tail is almost all white from below and the Black-tailed is almost all black! There are other subtle differences, but the underside of the tail is distinctively conclusive. Fifth is the COMMON GRACKLE a species so rare in the state that all records are sent to the CBRC for review. Often the documentation perfectly describes a Brewers Blackbird or a Great-tailed Grackle. On one occasion the CBRC received a frame-filling photograph of a Brewers Blackbird identified as a Common Grackle. The field guides show that all three species have yellow eyes and that the Common Grackle is mid-sized between a Brewers Blackbird and a Great-tailed Grackle. The Brewers does not have a keeled tail while the Great-tailed does. The Common Grackle has a smaller bill and smaller keeled tail than the Great-tailed. Both Brewers Blackbirds and Great-tailed Grackles are common in the Owens Valley. Last is the RUSTY BLACKBIRD which is often reported starting about Aug and often at feeders. These are all newly molted Red-winged Blackbirds that have rusty edges to the new feathers. When Red-wings are perched the bright red wing patches may be covered by relaxed scapular feathers. There are many other look-alike pairs and almost always one is rare and the other common. That is what makes the birding game so challenging. If you are looking at a bird that you think is the rare species it probably is the more common look-alike; but you just might be lucky and really are looking at a rare bird! The important thing is to keep looking!Tags: blackbird, finch, gnatcatcher, heron, owl, vireo
Help protect birds and the places they call home - before it's too late! Join the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society for only $20.
Discuss bird sightings, Audubon news, and more on our Eastern Sierra Birds forum! Join up - it's free!
Be notified when the latest newsletter is online and get the latest ESAS updates. Click here to sign up - it's free! The email newsletter comes out once a month, and on occasion more often. You may unsubscribe at any time from the link at the bottom of the email.
Heindel’s Birding Archive
- Big Day Fundraiser April 18, 2022
- 2021 Christmas Bird Counts in our Region December 4, 2021
- 2021 ESAS Virual Holiday Party in partnership with CNPS December 4, 2021
- 2020 Christmas Bird Counts in our Region November 25, 2020
- Limited Edition T-shirts November 25, 2020
- 2020 Virtual Holiday Party November 25, 2020
- 2019 Christmas Bird Counts in our region December 11, 2019