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Few things can be as frustrating as a bird flying away, particularly when it is flying over the ocean or some (apparently) large body of water where it could disappear for good. In the field, and in this photo quiz, it's often a good idea to start with shape. Here we have a bird with a very short neck, small head, and short tail. The bill appears short and rather pointed. The wings look narrow and pointed.
The combination of these characteristics may call to mind a variety of birds. After noting the general structure of a bird, it's often a good idea to focus on the bill to place the bird in the correct family (or even identify the bird to species). Our bird's bill appears short and triangular, unlike most pelagic birds (wrong for shearwaters, storm-petrels or petrels). It also doesn't fit any ducks, jaegers, gulls or shorebirds. The bill looks fine for alcids, in particular auklets or Dovekie. The small chunky body and narrow wings are also typical of alcids. But even for an alcid, our bird appears chunky, again, more like an auklet or Dovekie.
One thing that appears prominent is the pale patch that appears to be somewhere on the back of the head. This may suggest Dovekie, but this white patch would be much bolder if this were a Dovekie. The bill also doesn't look quite as stubby as we would expect with Dovekie, and Dovekie is much more contrasting black and white. Juvenile Whiskered Auklet probably comes the closest of any of the Aethia Auklets (Crested, Least, Whiskered, & Parakeet) but should show a darker line behind the eye, as opposed to the mostly dark head shown by our bird. Also, Whiskered Auklet has an even smaller bill.
The only other species that comes close structurally is Cassin's Auklet. The slightly paler area wrapping up around the auriculars on our bird also fits Cassin's Auklet, as does the white trailing edge to the secondaries and pale belly. The small triangular bill and short chunky body area are also perfect for Cassin's Auklet.
This Cassin's Auklet was photographed off Westport, Washington in July 2006.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the September Bird Photo Quiz—Cassin's Auklet:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.