Each winter, the search for food drives birds from the north woods into areas south of their summer range. This winter migration brings many new species within view of birders who eagerly search them out. One such species that makes this journey is the Common Redpoll. Common Redpolls are small, colorful finches that eat seeds and often show up at bird feeders.
While Common Redpolls can be scarce in certain years, another Redpoll species is even harder to find: The Hoary Redpoll. Hoary Redpolls look incredibly similar to Common Redpolls and they often flock together. In fact, they look so much alike that there has been talk about lumping them together into one species. For now, however, the two remain separate, and some key identification features can help to tell them apart.
While both birds have very small, triangular-shaped bills, the bill of the Common Redpoll is slightly larger. Hoary Redpolls will have a shorter bill than a Common Redpoll that will appear stubbier and more pushed in.
One of the most notable differences between the two species is the streaking on the chest. Common Redpolls have chest streaking that is more defined than in Hoary Redpolls. They also have bold streaking on the flanks, along with streaking on the rump and undertail coverts, which is either absent or subtle in Hoary Redpolls. Note the differences in the photos below with the heavy streaking on the Common Redpoll (Top Left and Top Right) vs. the Hoary Redpoll’s lack of streaking (Bottom Left and Bottom Right).
Common Redpoll’s streaked undertail coverts
Common Redpoll’s streaked rump
Hoary Redpoll’s white undertail coverts
Hoary Redpoll’s white rump
Crown and Chest
Another distinguishing characteristic of Redpolls are their red coloring on the crown and chest. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls display bright red crowns, however the Hoary Redpoll’s crown is smaller and primarily at the front of the head, whereas the Common’s crown will extend back further. Additionally, the male Common Redpolls will have more red on their chest compared to the male Hoary Redpoll, which may have only washed out red coloration on the chest, or almost no red.
All in all, the Common Redpoll has a body coloration ranging from tan to brown, compared to the “frosted” and muted browns seen in Hoary Redpolls. The red on the breast of the males is typically more apparent in Common Redpolls, as is the red on the crown. When compared with Common Redpolls, Hoary Redpolls sometimes look like they are in black and white other than their darker red crown.
With winter approaching, these birds will start to pop up in local parks and bird feeders. Finding a Hoary Redpoll in a flock of Commons can prove a difficult task to the untrained birder. Hopefully these ID tips can help you differentiate between the two species.
Birds in winter (non-breeding) plumage can be extremely difficult to identify, especially Grebes. With these tips, hopefully it makes identification a little easier, and will help to make you a “Grebe expert” in the field. The guide is broken up into 3 different size categories (Large/Medium-Large/Small) and discusses the most frequently seen Grebes in the state of Wisconsin.
Overview: The Western Grebe is a rare visitor to the state of Wisconsin. It is extremely similar to the Clark’s Grebe (which is far less-likely to be found in the state with the last ebird record dating back to 1987). They often show up as one solitary individual on a large body of water such as Lake Michigan. They are bright white and dark gray/black with a long, slender, yellow bill, and a red eye.
Bill: Long, thin, yellow bill. Bill is normally at least 3/4 the length of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray body, black back and top of head and neck. White underside of neck and body. Stark contrast between white and dark coloration. Red eye.
Body Shape: Medium sized, large for grebes (21.7-29.5 inches). Similar to the size of a large Red-breasted Merganser (20.1-25.2 inches) or a smaller Common Loon (26-35.8 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Western Grebe is larger than most Grebe species except for the Red-necked Grebe which can be similar in size, although the Red-necked Grebe is far less bright, and more dull gray and white, compared to the bright white and black seen in the Western Grebe. Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than horned grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns (see photo below). The Western Grebe will have a longer, more slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as 3/4 the length of the head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.
Horned Grebe (winter plumage)
Western Grebe (winter plumage)
Overview: Red-necked grebes can be seen on larger bodies of water during migration in the winter months. They lose their bright summer colors and trade them in for dull gray-brown plumage. They are medium in size and larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species, but not as large as Western Grebes or Loons.
Bill: Bill is about 3/4 the length of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray to gray-brown body and top of head with white throat and cheek. The areas are not strongly defined and portions of the plumage appear “muddled”. Brown eye, yellow bill.
Body Shape: Medium sized, medium-large for grebes (16.9-22 inches). Comparable to the size of a Canvasback (18.9-22 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Red-necked Grebe is larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species and will be mostly gray-brown in color with some white near the face. The horned Grebe will have a smaller bill, and a whiter face when in winter (non-breeding) plumage. The Western Grebe will have a brighter white color than the non-breeding Red-necked grebe.
Overview: Horned Grebes are the most common gray and white grebe seen in the winter in Wisconsin. They are small in size, and multiple Horned Grebes are often seen in the same location, although they will not necessarily be “flocking” with each other.
Bill: Bill is less than 1/2 length of the head and fairly dark in coloration, black or gray.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray-brown body and top of head with white underside of throat and cheek. Red eye, with line coming down to base of bill.
Body Shape: Small and compact (12.2-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Bufflehead (12.6-15.7 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Horned Grebe can appear very similar to the Eared Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes. The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a Horned Grebe will not. The lack of “peaked” feathers, and more stark gray and white coloration also differentiates them from Eared Grebes. (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than Horned Grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns. The Western Grebe will have a longer, slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as its head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.
Overview: Despite the Eared Grebe being the most common grebe in the world, it is considered rare in Wisconsin. It is one of the “small” grebes and will normally show up solitary or flocking with similar sized birds. They often have “peaked” feathers on the head and are likely to be most confused with Horned Grebes in the winter.
Bill: Thin, dark in color, often can appear to be slightly pointing upwards. Less than 1/2 the size of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray and white body with red eye. Most individuals have peaked feathers on top of their head. Some white is present on the throat and nape of the neck, along with some white visible on the flank.
Body Shape: small and robust, with peaked crown on top of head (11.8-13.8 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches). The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, as opposed to sloping into the water.
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Eared Grebe can appear very similar to the Horned Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). The back end of an eared grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a horned grebe will not. The shape of the head with the “peaked” feathers, and more mottled gray coloration and short, thin bill are also solid identification features.
Overview: During the winter the Pied-billed Grebe is often seen on larger bodies of water in small flocks. Their head is blocky and large compared to their smaller body. They often resemble a small “Loch-ness monster” shaped bird, and dive frequently. Therefore, when looking for Pied-billed grebes, make several scans.
Non-breeding coloration: Brown body (sometimes gray), brown eye.
Body Shape: small and lanky, with long neck compared to body (11.8-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Pied-billed grebe is the only common grebe in Wisconsin that is small in size and brown in color. Their blocky head, slender neck, short and stocky bill also differentiate them from similar species.
All in all, picking through winter Grebes can be tricky, but knowing the key ID features can help you spot a rarity in Wisconsin. Whether it’s the “submarine-like” body of the Pied-billed Grebe, the “peaked” head of the Eared Grebe, or the long bill and neck of the Western Grebe, keep an eye out for the key characteristics that make all species of winter Grebes unique.
During fall migration, birders flock to their favorite weedy fields in search of migratory sparrows. While there are plenty of species to see, two of the birds at the top of the list are Nelson’s Sparrows and LeConte’s Sparrows. Both the Nelson’s and the LeConte’s are Ammodramus sparrows, perfectly at home skulking around in tall grasses and often only visible when flushed. Since these sparrows are quick moving and elusive, it’s important to know the key points to look for in order to make a positive ID.
At First Glance
A birder walks through a field of tall grass when suddenly a small bird kicks up for two seconds only to disappear back into the thick foliage. Was that a Nelson’s or LeConte’s Sparrow? Or was it something else entirely? Knowing some things to look for in a situation like this can narrow it down a bit. Both Nelson’s and LeConte’s have a compact appearance with a short, worn looking tail. They also have notable orange features on their face that most other birds lack. For Nelson’s, their dark gray coloration on their cheeks and nape can be seen even in flight. For LeConte’s, their buffy color and brighter orange is notable.
When perched or relatively stationary, some ID points separating Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows become more evident. One such feature is the nape. The nape of a Nelson’s Sparrow is solid gray. LeConte’s Sparrows have a pinkish brown nape with noticeable chestnut streaking. This may sound like a tiny detail, but when looking at the two images below, the contrast is easily visible.
Some of the most striking features of the Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows are their unique colors and patterns on their faces. Both species have orange on their face, but the Nelson’s orange is deeper and darker than the LeConte’s which is lighter and brighter. In addition, the same deep gray color on the nape of the Nelson’s Sparrow is also found on it’s ear patch. LeConte’s Sparrows also have an ear patch, but it is much lighter in color sometimes bordering on tan.
Out of all the distinguishing features between these two sparrows, the most reliable may be the stripe of the top of their head. Nelson’s Sparrows have a dark gray head stripe while LeConte’s Sparrows have much lighter white or cream colored stripes.
These birds can be tricky to identify in the field in large part to their skulky and elusive nature. With these tips it may be a bit easier to discern the two species. Armed with knowledge, start checking damp, weedy fields to see if you can find one of these migratory birds!
With summer upon us, some of the brightest colored birds in North America are nesting all across the country including the Midwest. Two of these birds that can be somewhat difficult to tell apart without knowing the field markings are the Blue Grosbeak and the Indigo Bunting. Both of these species are bright blue, frequently overlap in geographic range, and can be found around the same habitat. This means birders are likely to encounter both at some point. The good news is that there are some surefire ways to differentiate the two.
As far as size is concerned. There is a discernible difference between a Blue Grosbeak and an Indigo Bunting. Blue Grosbeaks typically range between 15 and 16 cm while Indigo Buntings are between 12 and 13 cm. This means that in theory, an Indigo Bunting should never be as large as even a relatively small Blue Grosbeak. While it is hard to tell size on a single bird by itself, a side by side comparison shows this difference distinctly.
The range of these two species differs slightly with much of it overlapping.
Blue Grosbeaks general range is as far south as Central America during the winter months and as far north as North Dakota in summer. They span from the west coast to the east coast and can be found readily in the southern states. While the Blue Grosbeak is widespread in the United States, their basic range does not typically go north of Colorado and Indiana with only a few individuals spotted annually during summer in states like Wisconsin. They do however appear farther north in the central part of the United States as they also summer in Oklahoma and the Dakotas.
Much like the Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Buntings winter as far south as Central America. This bright blue bird also inhabits most of the southern United States with the exception of parts of Arizona and Texas. It is also notable to note that the Indigo Buntings range seems to skip over western Mexico. Unlike Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings make their way much farther north in summer as they are found in every state east of Montana and even southern parts of Canada.
Bill size is a solid way to differentiate between these two species. The indigo Bunting has a relatively small, conical bill while the Blue Grosbeak has a comparatively larger bill. In addition, The Indigo Bunting has a completely one colored gray/silver bill. The Blue Grosbeak often sports a two colored bill with a darker gray on the upper mandible and lighter gray on the bottom mandible.
Though both of these birds are a very similar shade of blue, there are some differences in pattern and coloration that go a long way in identification.
The Blue Grosbeak has a small black mask near the base of the bill going over the eye that the Indigo Bunting lacks. They also have very distinctive rusty wing bars that serve as an extremely reliable field marking. Female Blue Grosbeaks lack the deep blue of the males (instead they are a dark tan/light brown color) but still have the same rust colored wing bars.
Indigo Buntings are almost entirely blue with some of their only other coloring being a varied gray to black on their wings. They do have a very small amount of black near the base of the bill but not nearly to the degree that the Blue Grosbeak does. Females are a lighter shade of tan than the Blue Grosbeak and lack the wing bars of the Blue Grosbeak females.
Image comparison of females
These two species often co-exist in the same habitat and overlap readily in the United States and Mexico. Even in ranges where only one of these species would be expected. It is good to know the ways to tell them apart just in case.
We hope you found this article helpful. Please feel free to contact us to suggest other similar articles or provide feedback.
This spring has been good for Ibises in Wisconsin as several have already been reported. Ibises are rare Wisconsin visitors that usually make their appearance during migration and only rarely breed in the state. There are two species of Ibis that occasionally pass through: the White-Faced Ibis, and the Glossy Ibis. While both are rare, the Glossy is the more uncommon of the two in our state.
Ibises are generally not difficult to identify. They are relatively large birds with bright reddish-brown bodies, complete with iridescent green wings, long legs, and a long, curved bill. However, while an Ibis itself is distinctive, the differences between the White-Faced Ibis and the Glossy Ibis can be tricky as some of the defining details are minor.
The White-Faced and Glossy Ibis are both more distinctive during breeding season when their markings are more prominent. In fall, they become almost impossible to distinguish. For this reason, we will focus on breeding season identification tips.
As far as their size, a Glossy Ibises is on average the larger of the two species. Glossy Ibises can range anywhere from 18.9-26 inches. A White-Faced Ibis is typically between 18.1-22 inches. While there certainly is a size difference, given their averages it would still not be out of the realm of possibility for a White-Faced to be larger than Glossy. For that reason, this feature alone should not be used to identify.
It is of course not uncommon for birds to stray from their normal range. However, range for these two species can be used as a general guideline. The White-Faced Ibis can be found all across the southwestern part of the United States and even reaches as far north as Montana, and as far East as Florida. The Glossy Ibis on the other hand is usually found the Atlantic Coast and in Florida. Therefore, if an Ibis is found in the western states, it is usually a White-Faced, however, that is not always the case.
White-Faced Ibis Range
Glossy Ibis Range
Leg color is a solid species indicator during breeding months. The White-Faced Ibis has brightly colored legs ranging from pink to red. The Glossy Ibis on the other hand has dull grayish legs. This feature can be tough to pick out depending how far away the bird is, but even at distance the pink tint of the White-Faced Ibis’s legs can be seen.
Eye color is another indicator of distinguishing these two species. The White-Faced Ibis has a bright pink eye, whereas the Glossy Ibis has a dark black eye. Again, this feature is much easier to observe when the bird is close but can still be seen with a scope or high powered camera.
Notice the leg and eye color differences in the images below.
The best way to tell the White-Faced and Glossy Ibis apart is by their facial patterning. The White-Faced Ibis has a namesake white mask that starts near the bill and goes completely around the eye. This thick white mask is unbroken by any other colors. In addition, there is pink coloration going from the start of the bill up to the eye.
Glossy ibises have a much thinner pattern on their face going near the eye but in most cases not going around it completely. This gives the pattern a “broken” look. In addition, as opposed to the white and pink face of the White-Faced Ibis, the outer color on the face is a light blue and the inside color is the same as the rest of the head.
The image below shows a great side-by-side comparison of the two species. Note the facial differences with the Glossy behind the White-Faced.
These identification tips should be enough to correctly determine the species of a breeding plumage Ibis in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. We hope you found this article helpful. Please feel free to contact us to suggest other similar articles or provide feedback.