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In far too many cases, this is the view that we have a bird. While most would agree that looking at the undertail coverts isn't as pleasing as look at a bird's head—or an entire bird—a bird's back end can be very helpful in identifying it.
Structure is very important. Look at how far the tail projects past the undertail coverts. Is the tail relatively short/long? Do the undertail coverts appear wide/narrow/short? Can you see how far the primaries extend past something else (base of tail, the longest undertail covert etc.)? Look at the pattern of the tail—generally when viewed from below, this means looking at the pattern of the outer two tail feathers, since the tail is folded. Some species are very distinctive—Magnolia looks like the tip of its tail has been dipped in black paint. But beware that tail patterns are sometimes different for males, females, adults, juveniles and immatures. And don't ignore the undertail coverts! Sometimes they have patterns that are just as useful.
Let's get started. I suspect the first thing you notice, is that this bird has a lot of yellow on the plumage and also some white. That's helpful. And you also notice that the bird is sitting in a tree or some other such form of vegetation. And the bird has relatively short legs (we're not talking about a heron or shorebird etc.).
Now onto the tail. We have an odd angle, so judging the shape of the tail is hard. It doesn't seem very long, but this could be misleading. But, we can see that the tail has a bit of a dark tip. Looking carefully, we see that the dark, from the corners, curves around so that there is dark pigment nearly (but not completely) across the tip of the tail feathers. This and the yellow coloration should bring us to the Dendroica warblers. Yes, some other warblers have this pattern, but it makes sense to start with the largest group. (And species like Blue-winged, Golden-winged warblers and the parulas don't have belly patterns that look like this).
Now let's turn to the undertail coverts. They are deep yellow in the center, with the edges and tip white. This exact pattern is only shown by Cape May Warblers. Many other species (Palm, Prairie, Yellow etc.) have yellow undertail coverts, but the pattern is more uniform. The plumage coloration also fits—white vent and yellow flanks that are consistent with having streaks.
This male Cape May Warbler was photographed at Long Key State Park in the Florida Keys in April 2007.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the May Bird Photo Quiz—Cape May Warbler:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.