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  • Writer's pictureVicki Wilmarth

Mystery Birds

Quick! If you are a birder, what kind of hawk is this? This picture is from my front yard in Amarillo, taken on May 9, 2020. You can see our Purple-robed Locust blooming in the background (which is a Spring-flowering tree).

If you are an experienced birder, you are looking at more than just what color is this bird. You are checking out his general shape and size, his plumage, whether there is barring on his tail, where do his wings end relative to his tail, the size of his head, and his eye color. You would note what hawks are common for Randall County, Texas, in May. Generally, that means your possibilities are Swainson's Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Harrier and maybe a Ferruginous Hawk that might be getting a late start on migration.

If you are a new birder like me, you pull up the Merlin app on your phone and upload the mystery bird picture to the app and wait for Merlin to work its identification magic. Unfortunately, with this hawk, Merlin did not narrow it down much. It said the bird pictured above could be a Red-tailed Hawk, a Broad-winged Hawk, a Cooper's Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, or a Red-Shouldered Hawk. That's way too many possibilities to really be any help. So when the EBird regional coordinator questioned my ID for this bird (I had mistakenly labelled it as a Cooper's Hawk, even though I know what a Cooper's Hawk actually looks like because we have two nesting in our front yard right now, including the immature female pictured at right), I dismissed any option but Red-Tailed Hawk, which is a pretty common hawk in our area, although certainly unexpected in the locust tree in my suburban front yard. I certainly did not determine that it was a rare bird.

In the 18 months that I have been birding in earnest, I've learned that seeing a rare bird does happen, but that few of the birds that I get excited about are really as unusual as I first thought. So here is another mystery bird to see if you can identify.

This bird was spotted at Thompson Park, a city park in Potter County, Texas. The day before I took this picture, there had been a fallout of thrushes at the park. I saw four Swainson's Thrushes, which are a fairly unusual bird for our area, but a couple of other (and much better) birders spotted a Gray-cheeked Thrush (rare for our area) among the Swainson's Thrushes. I did not see that bird. But I wanted to see the Gray-cheeked Thrush, which would be a lifer (first time to see that bird in my life) for me. So I went back to Thompson Park the next day, on May 18, 2020, hoping that the Gray-cheeked Thrush might still be around.

When I got home, I saw this picture in my photos of the day and thought, "that's an unusual bird. Maybe it's the Gray-cheeked Thrush!" So I read that a Gray-cheeked Thrush has gray cheeks (duh!), doesn't have the bold eye-ring of the Swainson's Thrush (check!) and has spots on the lower throat and belly (hard to tell). The parts of the identification information that I skipped were that the bird should look like a Thrush, which this bird does not. In my excitement to think that I might have see a lifer, I completely ignored what thrushes look like. I am very familiar with the common Hermit Thrush (below) that we see regularly at Palo Duro Canyon, and I should have noticed that this bird didn't have the body shape, the bill or the size of a thrush. But rookie mistakes are common among new bird nerds (I hope)!

So I misidentified the mystery bird from Thompson Park, just like I misidentified that mystery hawk at the top of the page as a Red-tailed Hawk. Thank goodness that EBird does use regional volunteers who are much more experienced birders to catch my mistakes.

So what were these two mystery birds? The blotchy bird from Thompson Park is a juvenile European Starling, one of the most common birds around. He might be a bit leucistic, or missing some pigment. And in my defense, juvenile birds are often harder to identify correctly. But otherwise, my blotchy bird is pretty unexciting.

The mystery hawk is much more interesting. Based on several EBird experts and the knowledgeable folks on the Raptor ID page on Facebook, it seems pretty certain that it is a Broad-winged Hawk. That is a lifer for me (yay!) and a rare migrant in Amarillo. Why he decided to land in my front yard on his migratory journey to Canada for the summer is an even bigger mystery. But I appreciate him posing for that one great shot, taken just outside of my front door before he flew away.

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