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In spring and fall, all sorts of birds come flooding through North America on their way to breeding or wintering grounds. This is the time to see species that don’t normally live around you—and some of them may leave you scratching your head. Take this bird, for instance: lots of brown songbirds perch on branches, but which one is it? Let’s tick through the steps: First, use four key visual clues to get an idea of the group it belongs to; then tap into your knowledge of migration timing for some crucial clues; and then check out plumage details to narrow down an ID.

1. What do we see? The first step is to quickly review the four keys to bird identification:

  • Shape: rounded head, plump body, longish legs, and fairly short tail
  • Color pattern: dark spots on the breast, brown upperparts
  • Behavior: perched on a branch, tail cocked
  • Habitat: though you can’t tell for sure in this picture, let’s say you saw this bird in a Massachusetts forest in April

2. Which group does this bird belong in? When we’re looking at a perching brown songbird, we start with sparrows, thrushes, and finches. The breast pattern is spotted, not streaked, and the bill is thin, which allow us to cut out sparrows and finches (which have stout, short bills and don’t usually have round spots on the breast). The shape is similar to an American Robin. Now we can confidently hone in on thrushes.

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush by Mike via Birdshare.

Looking closely at the photo above, we see these spots become smudgy on the sides and belly. This eliminates Wood Thrush (right) which is larger and has well-defined spots all the way down the belly. We’re left with five species in the genus Catharus: Hermit, Swainson’s, Veery, plus the less commonly seen Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s. These thrushes can be tricky—but we can get some help from migration timing before we dive into plumage details.

3. When are the birds near you? Timing, especially in winter and spring, can be immensely helpful in identifying Catharus thrushes. From November to March it’s easy—Hermit Thrush is the only one of the five species present in the U.S. and Canada. Swainson’s, Veery, and Gray-cheeked thrushes are in South America for the winter (Bicknell’s is in the Caribbean). Come spring, Hermit Thrush is the earliest migrant of this group. Check out this map (data drawn from eBird) of the three most widespread species. Redder colors indicate a higher percentage of the given species on eBird checklists. See how the map starts off with only Hermit Thrushes in the U.S.? Also note the different timing and paths of Swainson’s and Veery. (If you’re curious about Wood Thrush, check out this animated map from eBird.) migration timing of Hermit Thrush, Swainson's Thrush, Veery   Bottom line: migration timing, given our sighting info of Massachusetts in April, helps us cross Swainson’s Thrush off the list of possibilities.

4. Plumage details Many times, the combination of the four keys to visual ID, plus knowledge of migration timing, will allow you to identify a bird with certainty. But during peak migration, the Catharus thrushes are on the move throughout much of North America. It’s a good idea to back up your tentative ID by checking some plumage details. (Click on bird names below for more in-depth information at All About Birds.)

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush by Corey Hayes via Birdshare.

If we’re leaning toward Hermit Thrush, we can go back to the visual details to make us more confident. The eyering on this bird is more prominent than Veery, the other main suspect after we consider migration timing (above). And a distinctly red cast to the tail, contrasting with a brown back, is another hallmark of Hermit Thrush. One last thing we could do in the field is keep an ear out for its beautiful, echoing song—oh, holy holy, ah, purity purity, eeh, sweetly sweetly—a thrush’s springtime Ode to Joy.


Swainson’s Thrush by Laura Myers via Birdshare.

Swainson’s Thrush has the most distinctive face pattern among the Catharus thrushes: a bold, buffy eyering connecting to buffy lores to form “spectacles” against a brown face. The breast spotting is indistinct, and the upperparts are a uniform brown (usually a subdued olive-brown, or reddish-brown in the West). Their songs are flutelike and spiral higher and higher as the song goes on. They lack the Hermit Thrush’s clear introductory note.

The Veery is warm rusty-red all over, and has the least distinct spotting on the underparts of any of these five thrush species. Its fluting songs tumble progressively downward; they also have a distinctive, short call note that sounds like part of its name: veer.


Gray-cheeked Thrush by Andy Johnson via Birdshare.

More possibilities: Gray-cheeked Thrush and Bicknell’s Thrushes The two others in our 5-species group, Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s, aren’t as commonly seen as the previous three. They do occur widely in the East during migration, though (especially Gray-cheeked), so it’s good to be on the lookout. Gray-cheeked Thrushes are somber olive-brown across the upperparts, with a plain grayish-brown face that at best shows only a hint of an eyering. The breast has distinct spots. Their song is jumbled and burry, ending on a falling pitch.

Bicknell's Thrush

Bicknell’s Thrush by Sharon Richards via Birdshare.

Bicknell’s Thrush was split out as a full species from Gray-cheeked Thrush only in the 1990s. Its plumage is essentially identical, but its song is different and its breeding range (parts of New England and northeastern Canada) and wintering range (Caribbean, particularly Hispaniola) are different.

5. So—which species? Let’s put it all together: the bird in the top image is a thrush with a thin eyering and distinct spots on the breast. It is brown above with a warmer rusty color on the tail. It is a winter resident and early migrant across much of the continent—it’s a Hermit Thrush! Armed with this approach—four keys and a sense of timing—now you can head outside and practice these steps with any thrush you encounter. Good luck!

For more help with bird identification:

(Image at top: Hermit Thrush by Corey Hayes via Birdshare. Thanks to Benjamin Van Doren/BirdCast for preparing the map images.)

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By Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine

I couldn’t help thinking about Charles Darwin last month as I sailed from Ushuaia, at the very tip of Argentina, to the Falkland Islands, more than 400 miles away. He had made the same journey 182 years earlier in March 1832, and there were many reminders. The same snow-capped mountains of Tierra del Fuego I’d seen in a watercolor from Darwin’s five-year voyage loomed above us as we boarded the ship—and indeed, the strait we entered upon leaving Ushuaia was the Beagle Channel, named after the ship upon which Darwin traveled, the HMS Beagle.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was only 22 years old when he began his five-year voyage of discovery aboard the HMS Beagle. Painting by George Richmond via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, Darwin had a much rougher passage on the Beagle—a cramped, 90-foot, wood-hulled, Royal Navy sailing ship. He shared his tiny cabin with two crewmen, and his bunk was so short he had to remove the drawers from a cabinet at the end of it each night to accommodate his feet. By contrast, I was traveling aboard the 367-foot National Geographic Explorer—a Lindblad/National Geographic cruise ship that carries 148 passengers in comfort.

The birds were spectacular right from the start. One high-flying speck soaring overhead quickly resolved itself into an adult Andean Condor in my binoculars—which was a complete surprise, though we were still in the Beagle Channel with the high mountains of Tierra del Fuego nearby. We passed a huge colony of Imperial Shags, sharing a rocky islet with fur seals, sea lions, and Brown Skuas, which would fly through the colony searching for prey or things to scavenge. But the seabirds we saw as we made our way out to the open ocean were even more spectacular. I stood at the stern of the ship for hours, watching them play with the wind above the swells—Black-browed Albatrosses, Wandering Albatrosses, Southern Giant-Petrels, Cape Petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels, prions, and more.

The albatrosses were particularly impressive as they would alternately dive into the trough of a wave then swoop back up into the wind, using dynamic soaring to travel effortlessly for countless hours on their long, narrow wings. And they were always there, no matter how bad the weather or how rough the seas, making it all look so easy—which reminded me of a comment Darwin made in The Voyage of the Beagle: “Whilst the ship laboured heavily, the albatross glided with its expanded wings right up the wind.”

Some of the first birds we saw later as we landed our Zodiac boats on New Island in the Falklands were Striated Caracaras—or “Johnny rooks” as the islanders call them. “They are noisy,” explained Darwin, “uttering several harsh cries, one of which is like that of the English rook; hence the sealers always call them rooks.” The birds flew right up to us and followed us around. One tried to get into a camera bag I had set down on the sand. Darwin had warned about this: “These birds are very mischievous and inquisitive; they will pick up almost anything from the ground; a large black glazed hat was carried nearly a mile…. [They also took a compass] in a red morocco leather case, which was never recovered.”

Johnny rook

Striated Caracaras, nicknamed “Johnny Rooks,” are bold, mischievous, and unafraid of people. ©Tim Gallagher.

Darwin was perhaps an unlikely candidate to be a naturalist aboard the Beagle, which had been sent by the Royal Navy on a two-year mission (which ended up stretching to five years) to chart the coast of South America. He was only 22 years old and had begun his education at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, studying to be a physician, as his father had been before him. But he had done poorly and found he had little interest in medical studies. All he wanted to do was hike around the countryside collecting shells, rocks, and various plant, insect, and animal specimens. So he left Edinburgh and completed a degree at the University of Cambridge. His father hoped he might become a country parson in some remote parish in England. (The parson-naturalist was a common figure in Victorian England, often seen with butterfly net in hand, studying the flora and fauna of his parish.) But going on the Beagle expedition—experiencing a wider world unlike anything he’d known in Britain—set his mind free and unleashed his genius.

The Beagle had an able captain in Robert FitzRoy, who although only 26 years old at the start of the expedition was already an accomplished explorer. It was his idea to bring along a geologist/naturalist, both to increase the scientific impact of the expedition and to provide him with intellectual company. Darwin was not the first choice—several more accomplished scientists had been approached first. But Cambridge professor John Stevens Henslow recommended him highly for the posting. And it was obvious when Fitzroy interviewed him that Darwin was highly intelligent, affable, and easygoing, and would make an excellent traveling companion.

Black-browed Albatross

Black-browed Albatrosses would follow the Beagle for countless hours, soaring effortlessly above the seas in all kinds of weather. ©Tim Gallagher.

New Island and the other two we visited (West Point Island and Carcass Island) during our two-day stay at the Falklands were treeless, with windswept hills and moorlands, highly reminiscent of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, but with vastly different birdlife. It didn’t take long for us to see our first nesting penguins of the trip. Several Magellanic Penguins had nest burrows alongside the trail as we made our way up and over New Island to view a fur seal colony. The stocky, medium-sized penguins, with two distinctive black bands between their head and breast, stood amid the tussock grass or peeked from their nest burrows. But the highlight of my time in the Falklands was visiting two seabird colonies, shared by southern Rockhopper Penguins (delightful little yellow-crested penguins that jump over boulders and across cracks to get around); Imperial Shags (stunning blue-eyed cormorants with white breasts); and, best of all to me, Black-browed Albatrosses.

Both colonies were on steep, rocky slopes surrounded by tussock grass. The albatross nests were well-sculpted mounds, made of mud and stones, which the adults had shaped with their bills. Each nest contained a single large chick, nearly the size of an adult. The young albatrosses would flap their wings frequently, building strength in preparation for their first flight.

Occasionally, an adult albatross would return to the colony to feed its chick. As it came swooping in, riding the wind high above the colony and finally touching down, an amazing transformation took place: one of the most elegant flying creatures in the world instantly became a big, clumsy klutz of a bird, striding through the nest colony with its wings raised, being pecked at by annoyed Rockhopper Penguins as it passed. The adult would always go right to its own chick, disgorging a meal for the young bird before taking off and spending days or weeks foraging for more food in the open sea. Sadly, the Black-browed Albatross has been one of the bird species most commonly killed as bycatch in some longline fisheries. Recent changes in fishing equipment have helped reduce the level of bycatch considerably.

Falkland Islands Wolf

The Falkland Islands wolf—the only native land mammal in the Falklands—was there when Darwin visited the islands, but he correctly predicted the unsuspicious, easily approached canine would soon be extinct. Illustration by George R. Waterhouse 1838, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the animals Darwin saw, which is now missing, was the Falkland Islands wolf, or “warrah”—the only native land mammal on the Falklands. It became extinct in 1876. It really looked more like a large fox or dog than a wolf, but its closest living relative is the maned wolf of South America, from which it split more than six million years ago. It was a mystery for many years how the animal got to the Falklands, but scientists now speculate that it made its way there about 16,000 years ago when sea levels were lower, the islands were larger, and there might have been an ice corridor for them to cross.

Unfortunately for the warrah, it was incredibly unafraid of humans. “These wolves are well known [for their] tameness and curiosity, which the sailors, who ran into the water to avoid them, mistook for fierceness,” wrote Darwin. He correctly predicted its demise: “In all probability [it] will be classed with the Dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the earth.” He also noted that the wolves “from the western island were smaller and of a redder colour than those from the eastern”—which no doubt contributed to his later speculations on how island species, isolated from their ancestral species, evolve differing characteristics.

Leaving the Falklands after two days, we steamed eastward toward South Georgia Island, some 900 miles away. Stay tuned. I’ll be writing another blog post (and a Living Bird article) about South Georgia Island soon.

For more stories about birds of southern South America and the Southern Ocean:

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In 2013, the publication of The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle took a comprehensive and innovative look at warblers. In this archived Monday Night Seminar, the authors relate some of their best tips for learning to recognize warblers by both sight and sound. They describe important but often overlooked ID clues, including overall contrast, subtle facial features, color impressions, feather edging, rump contrast, and views from below, as well as foraging style, location, and behavior. Learn how even partial views can be used to identify warbler species.

Here’s the archived seminar in its entirety:

This talk took place on March 17, 2014, as part of the Cornell Lab’s long-running Monday Night Seminar series, a long-standing tradition established decades ago by Lab founder Dr. Arthur Allen. If you enjoyed this seminar, check this list for our list of future speakers—we’ll note which upcoming talks will be livestreamed—or come visit us in person! If you missed any talks, please see our index of archived livestreamed seminars.

Looking for more tools to help with warbler identification?

  • In our review of The Warbler Guide, we highly recommended the book as an innovative and comprehensive resource on this spectacular bird family.
  • Download these free Quick Finder guides excerpted from The Warbler Guide. You can print these out or put the images on your smartphone for easy access in the field.
  • An essential part of finding and identifying warblers is learning their songs. Our review of birdsong-learning apps can help you find one that works for you.


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Take a trip around the world with travel writer and birder Rachel Dickinson. Dickinson has spent decades roaming the globe in search of stories. Armed with a notebook and a little camera, she’s written about far-flung places such as Siberia and the Falklands, and places closer to home including the Erie Canal and her hometown of Freeville, New York. She recounted some of her travels in a recent Monday Night Seminar at the Cornell Lab.

Watch the archived video of her presentation:

Dickinson gave her talk on March 3, 2014. It was part of the Cornell Lab’s long-running Monday Night Seminar series, a long-standing tradition established decades ago by Lab founder Dr. Arthur Allen. If you enjoyed this seminar, check this list for our list of future speakers—we’ll note which upcoming talks will be livestreamed—or come visit us in person! If you missed any talks, please see our index of archived livestreamed seminars.

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