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This month's quiz picture is not particularly cover-quality, to say the least. However, despite looking through a haze of Russian Olive branches, we should be able to readily identify the not-so-wee beastie – given some careful assessment of the bird's characters. 'Tis warm brown above, with white underparts and strong, blackish streaking. What we can see of the bill is not short, but we may find it difficult to determine precisely where the tip is, thus its length may be debatable. Leg length, however, is not debatable, and our quiz bird sports fairly long legs, so is probably at least partly terrestrial. We can probably start with the premise that our quiz bird is a passerine, if for no other reason than that it's difficult to imagine an ABA-area non-passerine that might match our bird's overall appearance AND be found perched in a Russian Olive. In fact, there really aren't a lot of ID contenders this month, with the possible list including various Catharus thrushes, Wood Thrush, and a couple of thrashers.
Sashaying down the Catharus avenue, the heavy streaking, in combination with the warm brown upperparts, rules out Veery (some dark Veeries may match the darkness of the underparts markings, but such birds are not warm brown above). Upperparts coloration also rules out Gray-cheeked and Bicknell's thrushes and eastern subspecies of Swainson's (Pacific races are much brighter and might match our bird's upperparts coloration). With only a couple species remaining of the genus and looking for something to use to separate Swainson's and Hermit in their redder forms, we might actually note more specific features. One of the first that always stands out to me when I look at the picture is the bird's tail. Despite the foreshortening caused by the picture's angle, the tail looks fairly long Additionally, the streaking on the underparts is quite obviously streaking, not spotting, and these two features take us right out of the genus. In fact they take us out of all thrush options, as Wood Thrush also has a shorter tail and shows very distinct large spots, not streaks, on the underparts.
Okay, then, that really only leaves us with two species of thrashers, Brown and Long-billed. At this point, knowledge of plant distribution might help us. Russian Olive is a widespread exotic invasive in the ABA area, particularly in the Great Plains and the Great Basin, but not particularly common within the range of Long-billed Thrasher. Adding in the location (Chico Basin Ranch, Pueblo Co., CO) and the date (9 April 2006) may ice the identification for most – it must be a Brown Thrasher, a species that is not uncommon on Colorado's eastern plains.
Perhaps we should actually confirm that tentative ID. The primary field-character differences between Brown and Long-billed thrashers are eye color (yellow vs. orange or orange-yellow), crown and back color (rusty vs. medium brown), face color (pale gray vs. medium gray), color of streaking on the flanks (rusty vs. black), and presence of streaking on the undertail coverts (absent vs. usually present). Since we're looking right at the undertail coverts, we'll start there. There isn't obvious streaking, but the Russian Olive branches and the unfocused aspect of the bird makes it difficult to be certain. In fact, there is a suggestion of some darker marks there, but I would still put this feature, tentatively, in the Brown Thrasher camp – but recall that I used the qualifier, 'usually' above. While we're at the back end, let's check out the flank-streaking color, which looks to be dark, but neither rusty nor black, more a medium brown and of about the same color as the bird's upperparts. Hmm, streaking the same color as the upperparts is good for Brown Thrasher, but if so, both upperparts and this streaking really ought to be bright rusty; call this one a draw. The face is certainly not pale and looks about perfect for Long-billed. The crown and back, what we can see of them, are, like the rest of the upperparts, certainly not bright rusty; give the point to Long-billed. Finally, we can see pieces of the bird's left eye amongst all the various sticks crossing in front of its face and what we can see of it is orange. Yes, some Long-billeds have yellow irides, but Brown Thrashers do not have orange irides, so a strong point to Long-billed.
I photographed this Long-billed Thrasher that spent (at least) January through April 2008 at the bird-banding site at Chico Basin Ranch, a site that is <40 miles from the ABA office in Colorado Springs. In fact, Bill Maynard, the current editor of Winging It, made the confirmation of the ID of the bird that Pueblo birder Brandon Percival found. The bird provided just the state's third record of the species. This bird points out quite well that it behooves us to know what is possible – even if improbable; to not assume that a particular bird in our sights is just the same old, same old; and know the features that separate such improbable beasts from similar, more-regular species – something that Brandon managed quite nicely! Quite interestingly, the state's fourth Long-billed Thrasher was found in the Denver area in the same winter and it, also, survived into April.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the February Bird Photo Quiz—Long-billed Thrasher:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.