12 June 2011

See What I See

Two days ago, I had the exciting experience of seeing a bird species I had never seen before, the eastern kingbird. The thing was, I didn't know what it was when I first saw it.

When I saw the bird, I was jogging. I'm not training for a marathon or anything, so I have time to look around me and check for animal species. However, I don't jog with a camera, so I can't document what I see. Because I still had about 30 minutes left on my jog when I saw the bird, I had to commit as much of it to memory as I could. This was particularly difficult because to see it, I had to look into the sunset. From what I could tell, it looked like some sort of flycatcher with a dark head and back and a white front. I tried to get a better angle, but when I moved, the bird flew away.

Upon returning home, I checked two online sources (WhatBird and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds) for help in identifying the bird. These are great resources. WhatBird's search function is particularly helpful in narrowing down the possibilities. I had some difficulty with this bird, but eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was 90 percent sure it was an eastern kingbird. The descriptions of this species and its habitat basically fit what I had seen and where I had seen it, and they gave me a key identifier to look for if I ever saw the bird again (a white terminal band on the tail).

Armed with that information, I decided to go jogging last night at about the same time, hoping the bird might be in the habit of being in the same place at the same time. As it turned out, it wasn't in exactly the same place, but it was close. I saw it on a fence, stopped jogging, and looked for the distinctive band on the tail. Sure enough, it was there, and when the bird took flight, the band was even more obvious. Success: a positive identification!

It's a cool feeling to come across a species for the first time, and the eastern kingbird is especially interesting. The males and females fiercely defend the nest. All About Birds even talked about an incident in which a kingbird knocked a blue jay from a tree near the nest and forced the jay to hide under a bush to avoid further attack. Eastern kingbirds can also identify cowbird eggs in their nests (cowbirds will lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and let the other birds raise the babies). When the kingbirds find these eggs in their nest, they, unlike many other birds, realize they are different and remove them.

Discovering this information is like learning about a new friend, and it all started by positively identifying a species I had not seen before.

If, like me, you are relatively new to identifying bird species, you might want to pay special attention to All About Birds' page for building bird identification skills.

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