Name That Bird

July 23, 2021

Our first photo in this installment of NTB comes from prolific photographer Sara Walker who correctly identified the bird. She took it on July 21, 2021 on the entrance road to Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. This is a great photo of an adult male. Adult females and immatures of both sexes are a warm cafe aux lait or sometimes caramel brown with lighter wing bars than the adult male. Immature males molting into their adult plumage can present a splotchy mix of blue and brown.


At first glance, this bird might possibly be confused with an Indigo Bunting during the spring and summer. In the fall and winter, though adult “Indigos” of both sexes are brown and commonly have finely streaked chests and blue tinged tails, both of which are lacking on the adults of both sexes of the bird shown here. And, in all seasons, Indigo Buntings lack the obvious wing bars of “our” bird.


Identification
Our panelists all agreed on the identity of this bird. If, as they did, you identified it as a Blue Grosbeak, you were correct.


In addition to the differences between Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings noted above, the beaks are different as well. It may help to recall the differences in bills between Common and Chihuahuan Ravens. The bills of both Indigo Buntings and Chihuahuan Ravens are respectable beaks. But, when compared to those of Blue Grosbeaks and Common Ravens, they are definitely minor league affairs. Common Ravens have great honking meat cleavers of bills and the triangular bill of a Blue Grosbeak is also one of its most prominent features.
The American Ornithological Society’s common name for the bird is an example of what common names should be. The bird is obviously and unquestionably blue, and there is absolutely no doubt that that is one gros beak! Would that all common names were equally felicitous!

The second photo comes from Tracy Patrick. She took it on Friday, July 23, 2021 in Brownfield, Texas.
Just as Sara did, Tracy correctly identified her bird, which was a life bird for her! Congratulations, Tracy, we’re happy for you!

 

This bird’s flight silhouette—long and pointy winged with a similar size and shape—is reminiscent of a Peregrine Falcon. In fact, even very competent birders have more than once mistaken it for a Peregrine. Peregrine’s wings, however, taper evenly to points, while “our” bird has wings that are broader beyond the “elbow” than they are from its body to the “elbow”. Also, the outermost primary on “Tracy’s bird” is shorter than all the others and it looks almost stunted. It may seem as if this would be hard too see, but is often readily observable in the field.
 

Two other characteristics separate this bird from a Peregrine. This diurnal raptor (hint! hint!) wingbeats are slow, stiff and measured while a Peregrine has fast, continuous, whippy and fluid wingbeats. Also, Peregrines don’t ever hawk insects. This bird makes its living doing so. In this, it’s similar to the American Kestrel and Merlin. The similarity to Kestrels is in that insects form the majority both their diets; that to Merlins, in that prey is caught on the wing.
 

Here’s a final hint: I don’t think this bird has ever been seen at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, but a related raptor usually shows up there every couple of years or so. That bird is a White-tailed Kite.
 

Identification
Our panelists were unanimous in their identification of this bird as well. If, as Tracy and they did, you opted for calling it a Mississippi Kite, you chose correctly.

 

Not only are Mississippi Kites master aerialists, pursuing and capturing insects on the wing, most of the time, they also consume them in flight. Another insect-related fact about the Mississippi Kite concerns wasps. Many times, they build their nests near or actually incorporate wasp nests into their own nests. This probably helps defend Kite chicks against climbing predators. Northern Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, House Sparrows, and other smaller bird species at times build their nests close to or actually on those of Mississippi Kites and coexist in peace. This seems to offer protection to the smaller birds.
 

In conclusion, I’m jealous, Tracy! A Mississippi Kite would be a life bird for me as well.
But, I’ll see one someday.