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This month's quiz was apparently a stumper for a lot of folks, because with one week to go, some 28 species had been provided as answers. We have a flock of similar-looking birds – and they have to be, don't they? – with ochre-yellow heads, pale (yellow?) bellies, and with wings that are an oddly (read: distinctive) triangular, yet very pointed, shape. The wing shape, itself, is probably sufficient to identify the birds, but we'll go through a bit more of the usual process to cover the bases. After all, how many of us can identify passerines in flight on shape alone? And, the birds are passerines, as the seemingly small size and short-for-the-body-size wings would indicate. Those passerine families occurring in the ABA area that have members with yellowish heads, are quite few, being limited to Remizidae, Motacillidae, Parulidae, Pirangidae, Cardinalidae, Icteridae, and Fringillidae.
We can rule out the first family, as I don't think that any Verdin has ever been as high in the air as our quiz birds appear. Of course, shape and plumage cues also rule out that species.
Our birds just don't have the long tails typical of the wagtails, so the second family is gone.
It's hard to come up with strong possibilities among the warblers, as the mystery birds seem too chunky. Additionally, except for Yellow-rumped Warblers in some places, I'm not sure that anyone has seen such a clumped flock of any species of warbler going over high. Since our birds are obviously not Yellow-rumped Warblers, the Parulidae can be sent packing.
Tanagers are chunky and many sport yellowish heads, so let's retain that family for now.
The only species that qualifies the Cardinalidae is Yellow Grosbeak and our birds just don't have the schnoz that that species carries around with it; bye-bye Cardinalidae.
The blackbirds sport a few members that have plumages with yellow heads, so the Icteridae can hang around for the second round.
The goldfinches are the reason that the Fringillidae was included, but our quiz birds' bills are too large and the birds lack white in the underwing, so they cannot be goldfinches.
In the second round, we can remove the tanagers, as all but Hepatic and Summer have strongly dark-and-light underwings (which our birds seem to lack) and the remaining tanagers don't have the dark tails that our quiz birds sport. That leaves us with the Icteridae. Various oriole species have members with yellowish heads, so let's go down that road. Streak-backed, Bullock's, Baltimore, Altamira, Spot-breasted, and Black-vented orioles don't have plumages with yellow heads. Unfortunately, almost all of the yellow-headed oriole plumages also seem to have yellowish tails. But, the real kicker is that orioles are, as a group, fairly round-winged. The strongly migrant species, particularly Orchard Oriole, have more pointed wings, but even those species don't exhibit the sharply-pointed wingtip of at least two of our quiz birds.
Well, if it IS and icterid, is NOT an oriole, and it's obviously not a Yellow-headed Blackbird, what is left? There IS a species of blackbird remaining, an odd one in many respects. It is strongly social and is the longest-distance migrant of any Icterid, thus at least partly explaining the pointed wings – long-distance migrants tend to have more pointed wings than similar species that are sedentary or migrate shorter distances.
The five Bobolinks in this picture were part of a larger flock flying over "The Dike" at Higbees Beach S.W.A., Cape May Co., NJ, on 19 September 2008, and were counted by the morning flight counter hired by the Cape May Bird Observatory. For more information on the phenomenon of morning flight and the project conducted at The Dike, head to http://www.njaudubon.org/SectionResearch/MorningFlight.aspx.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the November Bird Photo Quiz—Bobolink:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.