Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Trying to demystify fall bird identification

By CHERYL KIMBALL October 13. 2017 9:45PM
First guesses were worm-eating warbler or Grace's warbler, but not enough identify marks could be discerned for our columnist to make a confident identification. (Courtesy/Cheryl Kimball)

FALL IS A HARD time for an amateur ornithologist to do bird identification. Many of the northeast’s most colorful species have hit the airways for friendlier winter climates. Woodpeckers that stay the winter are concentrating on creating their winter resting places. Unlike in springtime, the trees and bushes aren’t filled with strikingly colored songbirds strutting their stuff for mating possibilities.

However, walk around the edges of a field or a swampy area and I see little brown birds flitting from limb to limb and shrub to shrub. As I walk the dogs, we flush these little birdies here and there. And I want to know what they are. With unremarkable marks of brown, black or white, movements so fast you could hardly see an identifying mark if there was one, and fall habitat still thick with leaves, you barely know they are there unless you spot movement or hear their equally subtle fall vocalizations.

I decided to stalk a couple areas around our property where I had recently seen activity. I brought my camera with zoom lens to snap pictures of any birds I could since I felt that the only way I could identify anything was to get the best shot possible and zoom in on it.

The dogs had fun snuffling. The old guy has his regular haunts; the new dog is chipmunk obsessed. They both had no problem keeping busy whenever I stopped and scanned the canopy and lower trees and bushes. My hunt was relatively unrewarding until we strolled around a swampy stream that cuts through the “field” (read: boulders and ferns). What I generically refer to as “red berries” are in great abundance this year — perhaps the most I have ever seen. Not only are there more shrubs with the berries on them, but each shrub is heavily loaded. The only birds that I have ever witnessed eating them are cedar waxwings; they and any other critter that enjoys these berries are going to have bellyaches this fall.

I trained my camera lens on the dense leaves a third of the way from the top. Occasionally I would take the camera away from my face and just look for movement. But I couldn’t do any of this too quickly because in order to look through the lens, I had to put my glasses on top of my head. But when I took the camera away and retrieved my glasses, I needed to blow on them for 30 seconds since the afternoon was quite humid and my glasses steamed up on top of my head. None of this is a recipe for bird watching or identifying.

Finally I saw movement and then a bird. I snapped several pictures hoping it caught something that could be used in identification. We moved on. Not far from the back of the barn is an opening in the stone wall going up a hill to a pair of graves. To the left of the entrance is a swampy little area with more red berries. Again the dogs snuffled and again I saw movement and again I snapped away hoping to capture something with some clarity.

When I viewed them on my computer, I found that only the sighting in the field provided anything useful. And only one of the images caught of that sighting was clear enough to provide some possible identifying features. As seen in the photo accompanying this column, the bird has several things that I looked for in my search through the bird books: the black stripe across its eye; the white under and over its eye; a dark cap; a pale yellow belly; dark legs; a short stubby tail; and what seems to be a pretty short bill.

Scanning the bird books, I was at first certain I had seen a worm-eating warbler. But a different view of that bird in another book made me think not. In Sibley’s two-page overview of wood warblers, I was convinced it was a Grace’s warbler. But when I looked at the Grace’s entry, I saw that its range is the southwest. Then the closer I looked at the picture, the more I wondered if the black stripe across the eye is in fact a small branch in the foreground. And I wish I could better see the side of the bird to determine if there are white wingtip bars. Maybe a first-year Townsend’s? Unlikely.

I have a couple more weeks to do a little more in-the-field sleuthing. A reasonable goal would be to identify at least one of the “little brown jobbers.” If anyone has any tips, I am happy to receive them and happy to pass them along.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at

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