Category Archives: ID Challenge

ID Challenge: Mountain vs Black-capped vs Carolina Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It’s a cold, grey, windy day today and my yard is awash in activity. My bird feeders especially are getting a workout with several new visitors this year, including a Mountain Chickadee. Mountain Chickadees aren’t uncommon along the Front Range, but they’re usually found in the foothills and mountains where there are an abundance of conifers rather than in my lower elevation deciduous-tree-dominated suburban neighborhood.

I was first alerted to my new guest by its scratchy “chicka-dee-dee” call, like a Black-capped Chickadee (a year-round resident in my neighborhood) with a sore throat. For comparison, here’s the Black-capped Chickadee’s call.

Black-capped Chickadee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Other than their calls, Mountain Chickadees are fairly easy to differentiate from Black-capped Chickadees. The most obvious visual difference is the Mountain’s bold white eyebrow, which makes it a little angry-looking. The Mountain is also usually a lot greyer, with very little if any buffiness on the underparts and less white edging on the wings.

Although my area of Colorado is only home to Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, the true ID challenge is between Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. Carolina Chickadees are slightly smaller than Black-capped Chickadees and are more of a southeastern US bird. They were my backyard chickadee in Virginia.

Carolina Chickadee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Like the Mountain Chickadee, Carolinas are greyer than the Black-capped with little white wing-edging and not as much buffy coloring on their underparts. Their white cheek patch is greyer toward the back of the head and their black “bib” is smaller than the Black-capped with well-defined edges. There is also much less white edging on the outer tail feathers in Carolina Chickadees.

Probably the easiest way to distinguish between the Carolina Chickadee and the Black-capped Chickadee, however, is by voice. The song of the Black-capped Chickadee is usually a 3-note “Hey sweet-ie” whereas the Carolina’s song is usually a a 4-note song: “Fee bee fee bay.” The Carolina Chickadee also tends to have a faster call. But don’t worry, the two look-alikes only share territory in a small band roughly shown on the map below.

Map showing zone of overlap (black line) between Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees.

ID Challenge: Cattle Egret vs. Great Egret vs. Snowy Egret

Cattle Egret in breeding plumage. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Ah, the egret. One of the most majestic and graceful of birds. Fashionistas of the past agreed: thousands of egrets were slaughtered for their long, silky plumes, which used to adorn ladies’ hats.

There are 3 egret species that regularly visit Colorado: the Cattle Egret, the Great Egret, and the Snowy Egret. All 3 are only found in Colorado in the breeding season and are generally white birds. So how’s a birder supposed to know which one they’re looking at?

Size comparison between the Great Egret (left) and the Snowy Egret. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One way is to look at where the bird is. Is it wading in ankle-deep water in a marsh or is it poking around in a (perhaps wet) pasture or agricultural field? If it’s in a field, sometimes surrounded by cows, you’re almost certainly looking at a Cattle Egret. Cattle Egrets, which somehow became established in North America in the 1950’s, are shorter and stockier than our native egrets with either dark legs in non-breeding plumage or orange legs in breeding plumage, and thick, orange beaks. In breeding season, their plumes are a rusty color on their crowns, backs, and breasts that immediately give them away. Neither the Snowy nor the Great Egret have colorful

Snowy Egret in breeding plumage. Note the plumes on the chest. Photo by Jamie Simo.


The next biggest egret in Colorado is the Snowy Egret. Next to the Cattle Egret, the Snowy is taller and more slender with a longer, more pointed bill. As mentioned, the Snowy Egret has white plumes so it’s more difficult to tell it apart from the Great Egret than the Cattle Egret.

The Great Egret is about twice the size of the Snowy Egret, towering over the smaller bird. It’s roughly the same size as a Great Blue Heron. It can be hard to judge size if you are only looking at a single bird, however. The Snowy Egret has black legs with yellow feet, while the Great Egret has both black legs and feet, but if the bird’s feet are submerged in water, that’s not a helpful characteristic either.

Great Egret. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The best way to distinguish between the two birds then, is by bill color. The Snowy Egret has a black bill with a yellow patch of skin on its face while the Great Egret has an orange bill with a yellow patch of skin on its face that turns a bright green in the breeding season.

So head to your nearest wetland or cow pasture and look for some egrets to test out your newfound ID skills. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed by these birds.

ID Challenge: Sharp-shinned vs. Cooper’s Hawk

Winter is a great time for viewing raptors, especially in Colorado. For instance, it’s the only time of year you can see some species, like the Rough-legged Hawk or Merlin. And  with the leaves off the trees, it’s much easier to see birds of prey. I’ve been seeing tons of raptors myself over the last few months, but I wanted to talk about two of them that get a lot of people (including me!) confused: the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk.

Immature Sharp-shinned Hawk. Note the small head and thick streaking. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Immature Cooper’s Hawk. Note the bigger head and more diffuse breast streaking. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk are both members of a group of hawks called the Accipiters. Accipiters, also known as forest hawks, are much smaller than soaring hawks like the Red-tailed Hawk. They have long tails and broad wings to help them maneuver quickly and easily through trees. In addition to forests, though, you can often find Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks in your backyard because they primarily feed on birds and small rodents.

Both the Sharp-shinned and the Cooper’s Hawks are slate grey on the back as adults, with rusty, barred breasts and grey and black striped tails. When fully mature, they also both have red eyes. Juveniles are also difficult to distinguish since they’re both brown with streaked breasts. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest Accipiter in North America, but while it’s easy to tell size differences between it and the Cooper’s Hawk if the two are sitting side by side, it’s much harder to judge size otherwise. So what other information can we use?

One often-cited id clue is to look at the hawk’s tail from the back. If the tail is rounded, you’re looking at a Cooper’s Hawk. If it’s squared off, it’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk. This is a helpful diagnostic characteristic, but not always reliable depending on molt, how the hawk is holding its tail, etc. So I’d use this as a secondary key.

Adult Cooper’s Hawk. Note the “capped” look of the head and the rounded tail. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I’d say the most important characters to look for in all plumage stages are the size and shape of the head and the shape of the body. The Sharp-shinned Hawk has been called “pigeon-headed” because it has a small (relative to its body), rounded head like a dove or pigeon. In flight, its head barely sticks out past the crook of its wing. By contrast, the Cooper’s hawk has a more proportionally-sized head that’s maybe a little squarish, and a longer neck. The nape of the neck on the adult Sharp-shinned Hawk is also the same color as the top of the head, making it look like it’s wearing a hood, while the adult Cooper’s Hawk has a paler nape making it look like it’s wearing a cap.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk, true to its name, also has much thinner legs than the Cooper’s Hawk and looks “squashier.” Its shorter neck makes it look noticeably broad-chested. The Cooper’s Hawk, however, is much slimmer, with a barrel shape (the same width all the way down). If you’re looking at a young hawk, you can also use the streaking on the breast as a field mark. The Sharp-shinned has much thicker streaking than the Cooper’s.

So, given what you now know, which hawk do you think this is?

Photo by Jamie Simo



ID Challenge: Williamson’s Sapsucker vs. Northern Flicker

You’re up in the mountains of Colorado in a Douglas fir forest on the look out for the Williamson’s Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) when all of a sudden a woodpecker flashes past you and lands on a nearby tree. Your first glimpse is of a barred back and you immediately say to yourself “Northern Flicker” and start to turn away. But wait, you could still have a Williamson’s on your hands.

A male Northern Flicker feeding young. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male Williamson’s Sapsucker. Photo by Bob Gunderson, CA, Sierra County, June 2013.

Did you know that the male and female Williamson’s Sapsucker look so remarkably different that 19th century scientists thought they were 2 different species for almost a decade? Let’s look closer.

The male Williamson’s Sapsucker is distinctive and probably not likely to cause many identification problems. It has a glossy black back and chest with a red chin, prominent white wing patch, barred flanks, and a yellow belly; truly a striking bird. The female, by contrast, is mostly black, white, and grey.

Like the Northern Flicker, the female Williamson’s Sapsucker does have a barred back and a black “collar”, but the Flicker’s back is more brownish and it has spotting on the breast and belly instead of more barring. It is more colorful overall with red or yellow wing and tail linings, a red or black mustache (male), and, in the Eastern

A female Williamson’s Sapsucker drinks sap from a recent tree cut at Meyer’s Ranch Open Space. Photo by Jamie Simo.

subspecies, a red nape patch. The female Williamson’s Sapsucker’s single point of color, meanwhile, is a yellow belly, which is often not visible due to its typical posture climbing the trunks of trees where it drills wells from which it eats sap and the insects that get stuck in it. While the Flicker also climbs trees, it spends a great deal of time eating ants off the ground, catching them with its sticky tongue. It is also a bigger bird at 11 to 12 inches versus 8 to almost 10 inches for the Sapsucker.

The sounds the two birds make is also different. Rather than the “wicka wicka” and “clear” calls of the Northern Flicker, the Williamson’s Sapsucker makes a “churring” sound. They appear to be less vocal than the Flicker, however, so you may not even hear them call at all.

So, the next time you spot a fairly large woodpecker with a barred back here in the Colorado mountains, take a second look instead of dismissing it as another Northern Flicker.




ID Challenge: White-tailed vs Mule Deer

Let’s turn now from the difficulties of distinguishing similar species of birds to a large mammal conundrum. Living on the east coast for most of my life, there was no doubt that the deer eating the flowers in my neighbor’s backyard was a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). There simply are no other deer in Virginia. It wasn’t until I visited Yosemite National Park when I was already an adult that I saw a different type of deer for the first time, the mule deer (Odocoiileus hemionus).

A mule deer during rutting season at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo.

While the mule deer is typically a western species and the white-tailed deer typically an eastern species, the westward expansion of the white-tailed deer due to the replacement of grassland communities with agriculture and trees, has led to areas where the two commingle. At some point, perhaps, the white-tail, due to its greater adaptability (e.g. tendency toward twins rather than single fawns) may eventually out-compete the mule deer entirely, but, for now, both are present in eastern Colorado.

So, you’re hiking in a state park and you’ve come across a small herd of deer. They stare at you. You stare back. Who are you looking at? Is it a white-tail or a mule?

White-tailed deer. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One way people say to tell is by looking at the size of the ears. The mule deer has enormous ears, like its namesake, while the white-tail’s are smaller. I’ve never found this particularly useful though because, unless they’re right next to each other, I can’t tell whether that’s a really big or just an average-sized ear.

A better way of distinguishing the two species is by their tails. The mule deer has a rather short, white tail with a black tip and its backside is also pretty white. The white-tailed deer, however, has a longer, bushier, browner tail. Its name comes from the way it raises its tail like a flag to expose the white underneath when alarmed.

White-tailed deer unnerved by my presence in Fort Collins, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A mule deer chows down on roses near an office building. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Another way to distinguish if you don’t have a good look at the back of the animal, is by the facial pattern. The mule deer has a fairly even-toned pale brown face. This often sets off a darker forehead (sometimes this looks to me like a unibrow or a toupee). The white-tailed deer, however, has a face the same tone as the rest of its coat with white rings around the muzzle and eyes.

White-tailed deer buck. Photo by Scott Bauer.

If you’re looking at a buck during antler season, you can also tell what species you have by checking to see whether the the points branch off continuously like a tree (mule) or whether they all split off a main “trunk” (white-tailed). Obviously, this only works for males and only during a part of the year though.

After learning this, I’m now confident I know who I’m looking at when I come across any deer while hiking. Hopefully you will be too!


ID Challenge: Greater and Lesser Scaup

There are several black and white ducks that show up in Colorado, including the Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bufflehead, and Ring-necked Duck. But few are as difficult to tell apart as the Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) and the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis).

The males of both birds have iridescent black heads (showing either green or purple in the right light), white sides, black rumps, and black and white barred backs that look grey from a distance. Both also breed in the arctic and can be found in the winter in Colorado, though the Greater Scaup is much rarer here owing to the fact that it prefers coastal areas.

Greater Scaups with Lesser Scaup at South Platte Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

So, you have a black and white duck that you’ve narrowed down to being a scaup. How do you figure out which scaup you have? The classic way to tell between the two is to look at the head shape of the bird. Is there a bump on the top of the head behind the eye? You have a Lesser Scaup. Is the head rounded or there’s a small bump on the top of the head in front of the eye? You have a Greater Scaup. The Greater Scaup also has a more extensive black nail on the bill than the Lesser Scaup.

This male Greater Scaup (center frame) shows off the extensive white on his flight feathers, which is characteristic of the species. Photo by Jamie Simo

But what if you can’t tell whether there’s a bump or where the bump is? Another way to tell is by the amount of white on the extended flight feathers of the wing. The bright white on the wing of the Greater Scaup extends from the secondaries (inner flight feathers) out onto the primaries (outer flight feathers), while the bright white on the wing of the Lesser Scaup is restricted almost entirely to the secondaries. So if you can wait for the bird to fly or stretch, you’ll know immediately which scaup you’re seeing.

If you’re lucky to have both in the same flock, you can also easily see the size difference between the birds. Greater Scaups are slightly larger with proportionately bigger heads. They are also usually brighter white on the sides than Lesser Scaups, though this isn’t always the case.

Now, can you find the Lesser Scaup in the photo below?

Photo by Jamie Simo



ID Challenge: Prairie and Peregrine Falcon

Here in Colorado there are many confusing birds of prey. The Red-tailed Hawk alone is a study in frustration when you consider its numerous color morphs. Is that a Harlan’s? A Krider’s? Or is it a western or eastern Red-tailed? Dark or light morph? It’s enough to make your head spin.

Captive Prairie Falcon at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, AZ. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Two of the most easily confused raptors are the Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) and the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). It doesn’t help that they can sometimes be found in the same habitat (both nest in cliffs). They’re also roughly the same shape and size, though the Peregrine averages slightly larger.

Rehab Peregrine Falcon from Wild Wings Environmental Education. Photo by Jamie Simo.

So how to tell them apart? One obvious way is to take a look at the overall color of the bird. The Prairie Falcon is mostly brown on the upperparts with white underparts speckled or streaked lightly with brown. The Prairie Falcon also has distinct brown “mustache” stripes on either side of the bill set off by the extensive white under the eye. Meanwhile, the Peregrine Falcon is mostly dark grey or black above with creamy underparts that are barred. The area around the eye is dark giving it a hooded appearance. Therefore, its “mustache” isn’t as apparent.

A Prairie Falcon takes flight near Nunn, CO, showing off its dark “armpits.” Photo by Jamie Simo.

All of that is easy to tell when the bird is perched for you to get a good long look, but what if, as is often the case, your only view is of the bird in flight? Characteristic of a falcon, both have pointed wings, so that’s no help. The best clue is to look at the underside of the wing where the “armpit” would be. Is the area dark? Then you have a Prairie. If the area under the wing is fairly uniformly barred instead, with no obvious contrast in color, you have a Peregrine.

Now is a great time to cruise the eastern Colorado grasslands to see some Prairie Falcons, but you’ll have to wait until spring for the Peregrines to come back. I know I can’t wait!