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It’s often amazing to me how much birders rely on seeing the head of a bird to identify it, even if the head is not at all critical for identifying the bird. That is, that there are more than enough other characters to use to come up with the correct ID. Hopefully, this is just such a bird, ‘cause we sho ain’t got no haid to work wid! True, having the head visible would certainly help us with the initial winnowing of possibilities, but we’ll just have to do that with what we’ve got. The wings look narrow and quite pointed, the tail is banded (sort of), and the wing feathers are all edged/tipped/fringed white. Oh yeah, the bird is pretty dark above.
The banded/spotted tail does a spectacular job of ruling out waterbirds, because I know not of a waterbird with such a tail pattern. In fact, there are very few ABA-area bird species that sport dark tails with bands of white bars or spots. Northern Pygmy-Owl is one such – well, interior-west versions, but those are certainly not pygmy-owl wings! Merlin is a great candidate, particularly darker subspecies, which tend to show such a tail pattern, rather than the complete (or nearly so) pale bands on Prairie Merlins. Our bird’s wing is certainly pointed. Check. The wings and back look blue-gray. Check. The wing feathers are tipped white. Whoa! Not check! To have a blue-gray back like this and be a Merlin, our quiz bird would have to be an adult male and, you guessed it, adult males don’t sport white fringes/tips to their wing feathers.
Dang! Those white fringes are so obvious and so consistent, that we cannot explain it away as a few odd feathers, so we’ll have to look elsewhere. In future field guides arranged roughly taxonomically, one would have to page through quite a bit of the book to get to the correct species from Merlin, but in current such field guides, we don’t have to go very far. (Recall that falcons are now considered to be the apex of ABA-area non-passerines, and are much more closely related to parrots than to hawks.) Just back up a few pages and we’ll run into another dark, pointed-winged, white-spots-forming-bands-in-the-tail bird that does exhibit white fringes/tips to the upperside wing feathers. “But wait,” you might say, “didn’t he just do Mississippi Kite last month? And a juvenile at that?”
I took this picture of a juvenile Mississippi Kite at Smith Point, Chambers Co., TX, on 12 September 2013.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the October Bird Photo Quiz—Mississippi Kite:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.