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Saturday, October 13, 2012


This bird was spotted last week as it flew into a break in the cattails on the west side of Union Bay. For a moment it perched in a small opening, looking around and then worked its way deeper among the leaves. The resulting photo contains more information than one would expect, given how little of the bird can be seen. If you use all the details available to you, hopefully you will be able to guess (if not conclusively identify) what type of bird is hiding among the cattails.

There are many different birds that can be found in and among cattails. Some rather large examples that come to mind include American Bitterns and Great Blue Herons.
However the bird in the photo, while colored similarly to a Bittern, is perched on the cattails, so it is clearly too small to be a Bittern (or a Great Blue Heron). While the Green Heron is smaller Its coloring eliminates it from consideration. Although, with only a split-second, shadowy glimpse of the bird, my first thought was Green Heron, but I was wrong.

Since we are looking for a bird that is perched in the cattails we must consider if this is a Red-Winged Blackbird.
Of course the bird in our photo is not black so it can not be the male Red-Winged Black Bird (RWBB). 

However, the female Red-Winged Blackbird is not black and for that matter does not have red on its wings either. Might this imply a gender bias in the naming of this bird?
Even though the color and the perching behavior of the female RWBB is somewhat similar to our mystery bird, the eye is clearly different. So we must eliminate the female RWBB from consideration.

There is another clue in our first photo. Did you see the bird's tail? It is long, horizontally striped and held in an upright position.  It is visible in the upper right hand side of the photo.
The Wren in this photo has a relatively long, striped tail that it quite often holds in an upright position. However once again the eyes are different. In addition the last two photos gives us another hint. Look at the size of the birds relative to the size of the cattail leaves. The head of our mystery bird looks to be close to the size of the Wren's body. 

So even though a Sparrow is larger than a Wren we can also eliminate Sparrows because they are too small.

This narrows the field of possible birds to mid-sized birds with long, striped tails. There are two hawks that fit into this category. They are the Sharp-Shinned Hawk (SSH) and the Cooper's Hawk (CH).
 Although male SSH can be a rather small (nearly robin-sized) bird the female can be bigger.  What makes identifying the two birds difficult is that not only do they look similar but the female SSH and the male CH can be nearly the same size.

The best guess from the mystery photo is that the bird is a small, male SSH, given how relatively small it looks compared to the cattail leaves and because it sets so lightly on those leaves. Since the eye color of both the CH and the SSH is yellow only among immature birds we also know this is a young bird.

For those who would like a better look at our mystery bird, here is a shot prior to it moving further back among the cattails.

In this shot the head is small relative to the body, the right leg is very thin and the brown on the head is not capped. All of these points help confirm this is a SSH. For more identification tips on SSH versus CH check out:

One last thought, this is the first time I have ever photographed a SSH hopping around among the cattails. It seems like a rather strange hunting procedure for a bird equipped with such a long-tail. The long tail allows these birds to fly circuitous routes among forest trees and to turn quickly to grab smaller birds in flight. It would seem that hopping about among the cattails would be a relatively poor use of this bird's special abilities. Still this particular bird must have had some success with this hunting method or it would not be doing it. If this is a SSH hunting method you have seen before I would love to hear about it.

I hope you enjoyed the challenge.


1 comment:

  1. Cute lil way of peakinginterest, had a Coopers hawk here this morning thought it was an osprey till we saw the taillength and then the stripes.