Category Archives: ID Tips

Nelson’s Sparrow Vs. LeConte’s Sparrow

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.

Nape Color

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.

Facial Colors

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.

Head Stripe

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!

 

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Blue Grosbeak vs. Indigo Bunting

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.

Dawn Scranton
Indigo Bunting – Photo by Dawn Scranton

Size

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.

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Blue Grosbeak – Photo by Mike McDowell

Range

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.

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Blue Grosbeak Range

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.

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Indigo Bunting Range

Bill

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.

Field Markings

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.

Alan Schmierer
Blue Grosbeak – Photo By Alan Schmierer

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.

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Indigo Bunting – Photo by John Flannery

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.

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White Faced Ibis vs. Glossy Ibis

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.

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Glossy and White-faced Ibis at Horicon Marsh

Seasonal Changes

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.

Size

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.

Range

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.

 

Leg Color

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

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.

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White-faced Ibis
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Glossy Ibis

Facial Pattern

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.

Glossy and White-faced Ibis
Glossy and White-faced Ibis

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.