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Great Backyard Bird Count Identification Primer

By woodcreeper February 12, 2015
Cover_photo_DOWO_HAWO same_Laura Erickson

With the 18th annual Great Backyard Bird Count right around the corner, the Wisconsin eBird team has been fielding many questions on bird identification of confusing species. Wisconsin eBird team members Sean Fitzgerald and Aaron Boone have put together this guide to separating many of the difficult pairs and groups you may encounter during the count.

Cooper’s Hawk vs. Sharp-shinned Hawk

Within Wisconsin, both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks can be encountered during mid-February; however, Cooper’s Hawks are encountered more frequently (**eBird line graph**).  During winter, Sharp-shinned Hawks may be more common in rural areas, whereas the more widely encountered Cooper’s Hawk is far from shy around human settlement.

Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks pose considerable identification challenges.  **Learn more on accurately identifying these beautiful hawks.

Immature

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Adult

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Red-tailed Hawk vs. Red-shouldered Hawk (immature)

The ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk may not pose much of an identification challenge, yet immature birds can be confused with immature Red-shouldered Hawks, another Buteo hawk that winters sparingly in Wisconsin.  Red-shouldered Hawks typically associate with mature forestedlandscapes, often in close proximity to water.  During winter, Red-shouldered Hawks will hunt habitats similar to those occupied by Red-tailed Hawks, such as woodland edges, fields, and rural residential areas.

Red-shouldered Hawks are slightly smaller than Red-tailed Hawks but pay attention to soaring hawks that show lightly marked underwing patterns.  When perched, immature Red-shouldered Hawks show more evenly distributed dark streaking on the breast.  Birds in flight show unique pale comma-shaped translucent patches towards the wing tips, which are evident on both immature and adult birds.

RSHA_RTHA_imm_perched

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Downy Woodpecker vs. Hairy Woodpecker

Both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are frequently found in wooded habitat throughout Wisconsin, although Downy Woodpecker is encountered more frequently (**eBird line graph**).  Hairy Woodpeckers tend to be more common in heavily forested portions of the state, while Downy Woodpeckers are less particular and can be found in either forested regions or fragmented and suburban habitat.

Attention should be paid to the relative length of the beak of these species in relation to the width of the head.  In addition, the Hairy Woodpecker is substantially larger than the Downy Woodpecker, being similar in size to the Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Red-headed Woodpecker

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a frequent visitor to woodlands and feeders in the southern three-fourths of Wisconsin.  This species is occasionally confused with the Northern Flicker or Red-headed Woodpecker which are both scarce in the state during winter (see **eBird line graph**).

Learn more on accurately identifying these and other woodpecker species here.

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Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and Savannah Sparrow

The above three species are all relatively scarce in Wisconsin during the winter.  Of these, the Song Sparrow is the most frequently detected of these similarly marked native sparrow species (see **eBird line graph**).  The Song Sparrow is often detected near wetlands or brushy weedy fields but will also occur under feeding stations.  The Fox Sparrow is typically found in wooded or brushy habitat, often in association with a berry crop of some kind (but appears under feeders regularly).  The Savannah Sparrow is the scarcest of these species during the winter, but can occasionally be found in open weedy or prairie habitat (unusual at feeders).

Lean more on accurately identifying these and other sparrow species here.

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House Finch, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll

During most winters, all four of these finches are found across Wisconsin in varying numbers at bird feeding stations (see **eBird line graph**).  This is a good winter for Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll (see 2015 eBird line graph) and across most of the upper Midwest.  For the GBBC in 2015, you may get good finch numbers at your feeders.

House Finches are frequently misidentified as Purple Finches as there is a significant range of variation in how rich the reddish head and breast coloration is on the males of the species.  Please exercise caution when identifying Purple Finches, as this species is detected at much lower frequencies than House Finch over the majority of the state (see **eBird line graph**).

Learn more on accurately identifying House and Purple Finches here.

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Small drab brown birds: House Sparrow, Carolina Wren, and Winter Wren

While not typically associated with each other, the following three species are all fairly nondescript, predominately brown birds that can occur within the state during the winter.  The House Sparrow is an abundant bird and is frequently detected in very large numbers both on and below feeders.  The male has the distinctive black bib and beak, while the female is a primarily brown.  The Carolina Wren can also occur at feeders in southern Wisconsin during the winter, but it is quite uncommon and will nearly always occur as a single bird.  Winter Wrens are the least common of these three species during winter, but are occasionally found along creeks or areas with open water present (does not frequent bird feeders).  Here is the winter frequency breakdown for the three species: **eBird line graph**.

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Text by Sean Fitzgerald (Elkhorn, WI) and Aaron Boone (Beloit, WI)
Editing by Tom Prestby
WI eBird Team
 
Many thanks to the following photographers for the use of their photos:
Mike McDowell (15), Tony Leukering (4), Vic Berardi (2), Ryan Brady (2), Laura Erickson (2, including the cover photo of the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers), Mike Myers (2), Sam Galick (1), Tom Prestby (1), and Caleb Putnam (1).

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