ABA Photo Quiz

ABA Online Bird Photo Quiz 140


Ah, a quiz picture in which most of the usable field characters are visible and with lighting that allows ready assessment of them. The brownish upperparts; thinnish, medium-length bill; and dark spotting on the chest point to the spotted thrushes, a group that causes no end of consternation in some birders, and not enough in others. Most members of the group are seen in low light, often in just fleeting glimpses. This one, though, is in good, flat light, and we can stare at it as long as we wish.

The first order of business once we find ourselves among the spotted thrushes, is to decide to what genus the bird belongs. Wood Thrush always sports a rustier back and more extensive, more-spot-like (less streaky), and very black spotting on the underparts (among many other differing features) than shown by our quiz bird. Various and sundry of the other aspects of the quiz bird rule out all other ABA-area thrush genera, thus leaving us in Catharus.
When faced with identifying a Catharus thrush, the most-useful features include upperparts coloration, presence or absence of eye rings and the color thereof if present, color and contrastiness of a paler supraloral bar, the color – black vs. brown – and strength of the lateral throat stripes, the color and extent of spotting on the chest, the flank color, the relative contrast of the color of the primary fringing (primary panel) with the upperparts color, and the distinctness of any color contrast between tail and upperparts. Of course, all regular ABA-area Catharus species are variable enough in many plumage characters to make spouting hard-and-fast ID rules problematic. Additionally, Veery, Swainson’s Thrush, and, particularly, Hermit Thrush are polytypic, that is, they are comprised of multiple subspecies. In fact, various subspecies of individual species of thrush are different enough from others and more-similar to subspecies of other species to create additional headaches for birders (such as the Pacific-coast form of Swainson’s Thrush and the Interior Western form of Hermit Thrush). However, accurately assessing three or four of the aforementioned characters should lead to a firm ID in most cases.

Species descriptions [summarized primarily from Pyle (1997)]

Veery (five subspecies): Except for the potential of very dark Veeries proposed by Dan Lane and Alvaro Jaramillo (2000) in their seminal treatise on Catharus identification, this species has upperparts ruddy to orange-cinnamon, moderate contrast of buffy supraloral bar, little or no eye ring (any ring typically restricted to the rear of the eye), indistinct brown lateral throat stripes, indistinct brown chest spotting comprised of small spots overlying an orangish background, gray flanks, non-contrasting primary panel, and little or no tail-upperparts color contrast. The more-western subspecies, particularly salicicola, are duller and darker above, with typically more-distinct lateral throat stripes and chest spotting.

Gray-cheeked Thrush (two subspecies): This species sports grayish-brown to olive-brown upperparts, little to no supraloral bar contrast, little or no eye ring (any ring typically restricted to the rear of the eye), distinct black lateral throat stripes, distinct black chest spotting fading to gray-brown on upper belly, gray flanks, slightly contrasting primary panel, and slight tail-upperparts color contrast. An additional useful feature is the gray auriculars sporting fine, black streaking.

Bicknell’s Thrush: This species is very similar to Gray-cheeked Thrush, except exhibits moderately contrasting primary panel and low-to-medium tail-upperparts contrast.

Swainson’s Thrush (six subspecies in two groups): Russet-backed Thrush group (four subspecies; mostly west of Rocky Mountains) sports grayish-brown upperparts with little to moderate rufous tinge; moderate to strong supraloral bar contrast; complete, medium-width buffy eye rings; distinct medium brown to dark brown lateral throat stripes and breast spotting; rufous-brown to gray-brown flanks; slightly contrasting primary panel and tail-upperparts contrasts. Olive-backed Thrush group (two subspecies; northern and Rocky Mountains east) exhibits brownish-olive to grayish-olive upperparts; wide supraloral bars that contrast strongly; wide, complete, buffy eye rings; distinct dark brown lateral throat stripes and chest spotting, sometimes nearly blackish; olive-brown to olive-gray flanks; slight primary panel and tail-upperparts contrasts.

And then there is the uber-polytypic Hermit Thrush (13 subspecies in three groups): All subspecies share moderately contrasting supraloral bar; thin, grayish-white to buffy-white eye rings (sometimes broken in the front); and distinct black lateral throat stripes and chest spotting. Western Lowland Hermit Thrush (eight subspecies; mostly west of Rocky Mountains) sport brown to grayish-brown upperparts, with or without a rufous tinge; brownish-olive to olive-gray flanks; slightly contrasting primary panel; and moderate to strong tail-upperparts contrast. Western Mountain Hermit Thrush (three subspecies) exhibits grayish-brown to olive-gray upperparts, olive-gray to gray flanks, slight to moderate primary panel contrast, and moderate tail-upperparts contrast. Northern Hermit Thrush (two subspecies) has reddish-brown upperparts, rufous-brown to orange-rufous flanks, and strong primary panel and tail-upperparts contrasts.

Among the fairly obvious clues provided in our quiz picture is the bird’s cold-toned upperparts, pale eye ring, black lateral throat stripes, blackish chest spotting fading to brownish-gray on the sides and upper belly, gray flanks, and medium contrast of the primaries panel with the upperparts. As the bird was photographed in profile, determining the tail-upperparts contrast is difficult, but what we can see of the tail certainly seems paler, more-rufous than is the back. Though not relevant to the bird’s specific identification, that single pale buffy water-drop-shaped shaft streak on one of the central scapulars allows us to determine that this individual is in its first plumage cycle and, with an April photo date, is in its second calendar year of life (<1 year old).

While in the East, Gray-cheeked Thrush is usually compared to Swainson’s Thrush in order to identify it, in the West, the species that looks most like Gray-cheeked Thrush is Hermit Thrush, particularly the large, very gray, widespread breeder auduboni, with its cold-toned upperparts and slight primary panel and tail-upperparts contrasts. I took this picture of such a bird at Chico Basin Ranch, El Paso County, Colorado, on 21 April 2004.

Literature Cited
Lane, D. and A. Jaramillo. 2000. Field identification of Hylocichla/Catharus thrushes, part II. Birding 32:242-254.
Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds, part I. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.


The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the December Bird Photo Quiz—Hermit Thrush:

  1. J. Kyron Hanson - Pittsfield, MA
  2. Michael Lester - Salt Lake City, UT
  3. Nick Block - Easton, MA
  4. Abbie Valine - Carlton, MN
  5. Claude Auchu - La Pocatiere, Quebec
  6. Mary Lambright - Savannah, Ga
  7. Alyssia Church - Pine Grove Mills, PA
  8. Claire Wayner - Baltimore, Maryland
  9. Miles Marshall - Maryland
  10. Martin Sharp - Edmonton, AB
  11. Dean Shoup - Golden, CO
  12. Tom Ford-Hutchinson - Irvine
  13. Hiram Herrera - Chula Vista, CA
  14. Celestyn Brozek - Albuquerque, NM
  15. klaus emmaneel - victoria bc canada
  16. Isaac - Kamloops, BC
  17. Tim Kalbach - Clearwater, FL
  18. Joe Hanfman Columbia, MD
  19. Oliver Griffin - Lothian,md
  20. Kern Freesland - Owings, MD
  21. Jared Parks - Church Hill, MD
  22. ben anders - maryland
  23. Brian Menker - Dayton, OH
  24. Nick Barber - Sycamore, IL
  25. Erica Rutherford - Oakland, CA
  26. David Rankin - Riverside,CA
  27. Joshua Christian - Hanover, MN
  28. Darrel Wilder - Johnson City, TN
  29. Bob Proctor - Elgin, Scotland
  30. Joseph Miller - Nickerson, Kansas
  31. Gautam Apte - Shaker Heights, OH
  32. Austin Young - Filer, ID
  33. tom graham - seabrook nh
  34. Jack Holloway - Mesa, AZ
  35. Nathan Webb - Elba, AL
  36. Chris Blazo - Chambersburg, PA
  37. Sam Ewing - Gainesville, Florida
  38. Sean Williams - East Lansing, MI
  39. Greg Prelich - Manchester, NJ
  40. Amy Darling - Denver, CO
  41. Chuck Carlson - Ft. Peck, MT
  42. logan kahle - San Francisco, CA
  43. John Shamgochian - E. Providence, RI
  44. Gautam Apte - Shaker Heights, OH
  45. Amy Courtney - Juneau, AK
  46. Eric Heisey - Granger, WA
  47. Karl Mayer - Tawas City, Michigan
  48. Rusty Wilson - WASHINGTON, DC
  49. Julie Desmeules - QC
  50. Mireille Barry - Qc
  51. Cara Borre - Gig Harbor WA
  52. Paul Fenwick - Carmel Valley, CA
  53. Miles Brengle - Ipswich, MA
  54. wes serafin - orland pk il
  55. Kyle Lima - Ellsworth, Maine
  56. Patrice Domeischel - Setauket, New York
  57. Dean Nicholson - Cranbrook, B.C.
  58. Linda Fink - Grand Ronde, OR
  59. Jeff Marks - Portland, OR
  60. Barb Robertson - Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  61. Scott Meyer - Richfield, MN
  62. Josh Southern - Raleigh, NC
  63. Susan Johnson - Port Clinton, Ohio
  64. Irvin Louque - Lake Charles, LA
  65. josh Parks - fairbanks, AK
  66. Jonah Joffe - Wynnewood, PA
  67. Gary Koehn - Colorado Springs, Colorado
  68. Kent Fiala - Hillsborough, NC
  69. Patty McKelvey - Sheffield Village, Ohio
  70. John Branchflower - Portland, OR
  71. Terri Everett - Big Rapids, MI
  72. Tom Lally - Chicago, IL
  73. Evan Dalton - Belchertown, MA
  74. Brennan Obermayer - Barrie, ON
  75. Wayne Meyer - Denison, TX
  76. Pam Myers - Marysville, WA
  77. Hannah Tripp - King George, VA
  78. Mark Burns - St. Petersburg, FL
  79. Casey Ryan - Fort Wayne, IN
  80. Greg Schrott - Avon Park, FL
  81. Robert Packard - Riverside, CA
  82. Josh Kiner - College Park, MD
  83. Georgia Conti - Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico
  84. Larry Kline - Fredericksburg, VA
  85. Kevin Ebert - Chevy Chase
  86. Owen Strickland - Toronto, Ontario
  87. Bridget - Vancouver BC
  88. David Tonnessen - Colorado
  89. Easton Hamer - Young Harris, GA
  90. Cathy Sheeter - Aurora, CO
  91. Nina Sitra - Sugar Land, TX
  92. Sam Heinrich - Carlisle, MA
  93. Noelle - Des Moines, IA
  94. Jim Weigand - Berkeley, CA
  95. Jay Powell - Macedon NY
  96. Greg Zupansic - Eugene, Oregon
  97. Steve Altman - Bloomingburg, NY
  98. Carson lambert - Charlottesville, VA
  99. Tom Schwartz - Mechanicsburg, PA
  100. Beko Binder - Davis
  101. Jon Atwood - Keene, NH
  102. Jonathan Frodge - Cincinnati, OH
  103. Pete Fenner - East Peoria, IL
  104. Avery Chan - Oviedo, Florida
  105. James Telford - Calgary, AB
  106. Alec Hopping - Littleton, CO
  107. Andrew Theus - Berrien Springs, MI
  108. Austin Hill - Richardson, TX
  109. Daniel Carrier - Purcellville, Virginia
  110. Mike Freund - Seattle, WA
  111. Patrick Newcombe - Potomac, Maryland

How Did You Compare?

As stated in the quiz rules, answers must consist simply of the Common or English name exactly as it appears in the ABA Checklist.

The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.

Gray-cheeked Thrush
Bicknell's Thrush
Swainsons Thrush


The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.