January bird questions

Birders are excitable people, ready to take any suggestion to get out and see something. They usually have wide-ranging interests and few dull days. But I have to wonder when I listen to a birder absolutely  identify a bird he saw only at a fleeting glance.

With effort I have mastered the distinction between downy and hairy woodpecker: sure, one is bigger, but when do they sit side by side? The secret is to look at the beak, not the feather pattern.

Another puzzler here is the meadowlark. We are lucky to have a place where both species of meadowlarks sing in April. Nobody can tell eastern from western from their appearance, but even to me their songs make it easy.

And the hawk that visits our feeder this winter has a tail exactly between square and pointed, but it confuses me no longer: the Cornell Lab tips me to check out the head pattern and size, so I believe I can now distinguish Cooper’s from sharp-shinned hawks.

This is birding progress for me. Not much, though – a good birding trip still leaves more questions than answers, and I guess I am not holding my breath for the day when I really know birds, anyway.

January is a good time for lists. This year I may:Low possible vireo nest Loess Hills

Find the vireos. I have found the excellent shallow-basket nest, and the Cornell Lab (allaboutbirds.org) says vireos may be the most common bird group in our summer woods. Who knew? If I see one, nothing makes me sure it is not a warbler. It would help to learn the calls, as I guess they sing all day long.


See migrant hawks. Nearly every big hawk you see turns out to be a red-tail.  Colors vary greatly even among red-tails, and they change for several years as they mature. I know red-tails overhead now by their dark shoulder patch. If I keep my eyes open, I should see six or eight other hawks that visit here.

rough legged hawkThe past month a group of rough-legged hawks have hung out on a floodplain near us while they wait to return to Canada and the Arctic. They really beg us to watch as they perch on power poles and even sometimes hover over the mice or whatever they hunt that I can’t see.  I can’t say I know their rough legs, but they reliably have dark spots on their “wrists” under their open wings. And certainly they think more highly of our January than anyone I know.


Woodpeckers were here

Woodpeckers were here

This may be the year I locate a few of the cavity nests of my yard’s woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees. I haven’t a clue.


In 2014 I hope I will also hear a wood thrush. Are they really in my woods? Maybe I will have to go out at first light.

And 2014 may be the year I finally discover an ovenbird.


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