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This is the last quiz in the current half-year competition and I hope that you noticed that all pictures were of flying birds. Oh, yeah, I love those flying birds!
This time, we have a seemingly smallish (we'll call it a passerine for now) and fairly drab bird with a grayish head and wing coverts, a white vent, and a dark tail. Looking more closely at the tail, one should be able to see that the outermost rectrices (at least) have fairly large oval white spots and that those spots are on the inner webs, not the outer webs (the white does not extend to the outer edge of the feathers). That tail pattern is not at all common. In fact, the list of passerines with white on the inner webs of the outermost rectrices is short enough, but that list gets even shorter when we exclude all those species that LACK white on the outer webs of those feathers. The solution set is dominated by parulids, but includes a few other species, such as some Pheucticus grosbeaks. Considering our quiz bird's small bill, I think that we're fairly safe with starting our search for the answer among those jewels, the wood warblers.
Though many might think this a difficult quiz (and the results certainly bear that out), with a bit of concentration, it's not quite as tough as it might first appear. At the very front of the bird, the bill looks quite pointed and that feature is a good separator, as most warblers actually have bills with fairly rounded tips. Those with very pointed bills are often nectarivores (e.g., various of the Vermivora warblers), at least in winter. (A quick hint for those that are attempting this quiz for the first time, this species is definitely a winter nectarivore.) Continuing posteriorily, our bird's head is quite gray, at odds with our understanding of most warblers being brightly colored. Another fine feature to ogle is the short, but bright white wingbar. Finally, we get back to that tail and that is where we'll really start our ID attempt.
Most of the warblers that exhibit inner-web rectrix spots are members of that large and variable genus Dendroica, what many think of as “typical warblers.” However, a few other species sport the feature: Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers, Northern and Tropical parulas, and Black-and-white and Hooded warblers. The drab gray head, however, rule all of those non-Dendroicas out. In fact, that drab head (in combination with the tail spots and the bright white wingbar) rules out all but Cape May, Yellow-rumped, Pine, and, perhaps, the dullest of Bay-breasteds.
Looking back at the tail pattern, we can see that the white tail spots don't extend to the tip of the relevant feathers, so Pine Warbler can be eliminated. Bay-breasted can probably also be ruled out by that feature, as their tail spot extend just about to the feather tips, but even the dullest of such birds should sport a contrastingly paler throat and would not have such a bright white vent. Really dull immature female Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warblers can have little or no throat contrast, but those birds also have larger tail spots on the outermost rectrices than those exhibited by our quiz bird. Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warblers sport contrastingly paler/brighter throats. Additionally, all Yellow-rumped Warblers have longer tails than does our quiz bird.
That leaves us with Cape May Warbler (among parulids), but that species isn't really that drab is it? Do we need to start looking elsewhere among the passerines for a solution to this month's quiz?
Absolutely not! Close scrutiny of the head reveals that our bird exhibits the classic paler ear surround typical of Cape May Warbler (yes, it is subtle) and, oh yeah, that species also has a very finely pointed bill (which it uses to obtain nectar on its Caribbean winter grounds), unlike all of the other Dendroicas that we considered above. Yes, Cape May Warblers CAN be this drab and, in fact, a large percentage of the Cape Mays that pass through Cape May look just like this (partly because the species is much more common there in fall than it is in spring).
I took this picture of a immature (probably) female Cape May Warbler while it was conducting morning flight over the dike at Higbees Beach S.W.A., Cape May Co., NJ, on 19 September 2008.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the March 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 Tony Leukering.