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Birds flying away always present a particular challenge. In part, this arises from knowing that the view is only likely to get worse, so birders often feel a certain pressure to ID the bird right way. At least in this case, we can look at the bird for as long as we want…well, technically, I guess we're limited to a month, but that's an eternity for a flying bird. This is offset, by our inability to see how the bird is really flying. The first thing that I key into on a flying bird is a combination of shape, size and flight style. While some could persuasively argue that these are three different things, they are also very interrelated. Wing length, wing shape, overall size all affect the manner in which a bird flies. And flight style is very helpful in identifying flying birds. Does it rock back and forth? Is it steady? Are the wingbeats rapid and whirring? Are they slow? How far up and down are the wingbeats? Even subtle differences in flight style are helpful for identifying shearwaters. But, alas, we don't have any of that to go by.
Without flight style to go on, and with a bird that is heading away from us, it shouldn't surprise us that 33 species were guessed, including geese, shorebirds, ducks, shearwaters, albatross, a jaeger, a falcons, and, overwhelmingly, alcids.
The feature that most of these birds all have in common, is relatively long pointed wings—which can be seen easily on this photo. But what was it that led so many people to the alcids? It mostly has to do with structure. This bird has proportionately long and, seemingly, narrow wings. The body is fairly plump. Admittedly, some shorebirds come quite close in terms of shape. I would argue that the shape isn't quite right, that the belly would not be as heavy all the way back to the tail, but these are very subtle differences. However, the absence of any wings stripe and our inability to see much of a bill combined with the overall color is not right for any shorebird. The tail is also extremely short and the feet seem to end somewhere near the tip of the tail. And while we can't see the bill well, we can make out a small point at the front of the bird. While it may be debatable if this is or isn't the bill, we can at least tell that the bill is short. If it were long, we would see it sticking out. So the combination of proportionately long wings, fairly plump belly, and short bill tells us that this is an alcid.
Two other things stand out to me: the white belly; and the black wings that contrast darker than the body. The great majority of alcids have wings that are the same color as the body. The main exceptions are the Brachyramphus murrelets—Marbled, Long-billed and Kittlitz's, which have more speckled upperparts, which ends up contrasting with the black wings. (On Ancient Murrelet the upperwing coverts are the same gray color as the mantle, and the flight feathers are darker).
Even among these murrelets, however, the contrast between the wings and the upperparts is usually not very obvious. But on our birds the wings are distinctly darker. This holds true both for the sunlit upperwing and the shaded underwing. We can compare the sunlit upperwing with the shaded side of the body and it is still noticeably darker, so this isn't simply a function of lighting. The wings are definitely darker-something that stands out when I see Kittlitz's Murrelets on the breeding grounds. Marbled and Long-billed Murrelets should also look darker than our bird. And, if we look really carefully, we can make out the diagnostic white outer tail feathers. I photographed this Kittlitz's Murrelet in mid-June of 2004 in Resurrection Bay, Alaska.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the June Bird Photo Quiz—Kittlitz's Murrelet:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.