Putting a name with a face

I recently mentioned “I’ve been investigating a bird species from photos I’ve taken these past five years, a species I’ve seen here [at White Rock Lake] every winter for the past 30 years.”

Perhaps four inches/10 centimeters long, give or take, the little rascals are as small as they are ubiquitous: I see them at every time on every walk in every place I go.

But their size makes them difficult to photograph given they remain on the move.  Still, they have little fear of people and don’t mind getting in close, so that helps.

Aside from trying to photograph a small moving target, another issue with identifying them has been the very real challenge of plumage: theirs matches several species (down to five if I use plumage, approximate size and time of year/location [the latter being a somewhat unreliable measure, but it helped narrow down the field to likely suspects]).

An orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata) perched in a tree and looking right at me (2008_12_24_002824)

[See the update at the bottom of this post regarding that image.]

Whether scampering about the treetops, scurrying through brush or scouring reed beds, these indistinct avians vexed me.  How could I not identify something I could photograph over and over again with such ease—assuming ease means snapping photos of virtually tiny and constantly moving targets?

A ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) perched in a tree (2008_12_28_004182)

I suppose there are people out there who could look at any one of these images and correctly identify this enigma.  I am not one of those people.

My skills at identifying flora and fauna improve with time, and I’m rather good at remembering an identification once it’s made.

But if finding a name to go with the face presents a challenge like this one, I I have to put forth great effort investigating the tiniest of clues that might help.

Unfortunately for this species, that left me with a handful of possibilities which all look quite similar.

A ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) perched in dry reeds (2009_01_17_004330)

Size, plumage, location, habitats and activity narrowed the list to certain species of warbler, flycatcher, vireo and kinglet.

That’s where I got stuck.

More thorough investigation would ultimately provide an identification, I knew, but I caught a lucky break with one image that cleared up the matter once and for all.

A ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) hanging upside-down in a tree (2009_02_03_006375)

See the identifying mark?

I realize that image isn’t the best one around.  The bird was hanging upside down in a tree set against a bright blue sky, so contrast worked against me.

Perhaps this processed crop will help: I severely modified the highlight, midtone and shadow lighting to make the clue more visible.

A close-up of the red stripe on the head of a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) (2009_02_03_006375_c)

Rarely shown and practically invisible, the hidden red crown made identification simple: this is a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula).  The one with the red stripe is a male, although some of the others could be as well if only they would have shown me the tops of their heads.

[Update] Much thanks to David for pointing out in the comments that I actually had two birds pictured in this entry.  I’m embarrassed to say I should have noticed the differences right off, but I didn’t since the first photo was in a group of ruby-crowned kinglet photos; I assumed then that it was the same bird in harsher lighting.  You know what they say about assuming…

Anyway, David graciously points out the telltale signs from the first photo that identify it as an orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata) and that differentiate it from the ruby-crowned kinglet in the last three pictures.

Now you see I still have a lot to learn about such matters…

3 thoughts on “Putting a name with a face”

  1. Good detective work! Kinglets are a joy.

    But … would you believe you have depicted not one but two species in this post?

    The top photo is an Orange-crowned Warbler. Though sunshine on its face washes out some of the details, it’s fairly evident that this bird does not show the bold white eyering of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Also the bill is pale, but on a kinglet it would be black. On to the wings … this bird does not show any strong markings on its wings; a kinglet would show a bold white wing bar and crisp yellow and white edges on the flight feathers as your other photos show so nicely. A patch of sunlight nicely illuminates this bird’s yellowish rump, a brighter shade than the bird’s upper back. Kinglets don’t show this contrast. And the tail is also relatively plain, in contrast with a kinglet, which would show crisp yellow edges on most feathers.

    So there you have it — two names and two faces! Oh, and the orange crown of an Orange-crowned Warbler is even harder to observe than the red crown of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. 🙂

  2. That is SOOOO embarrassing. And I was sure it was the same kind given its size and that I had photos of the ruby-crowned kinglet in the same tree from the same photo op. I’m hanging my head in shame…

    Self-deprecation aside, though, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the correction. While I’ve lived here for almost 40 years, I only dived into the whole nature photography thing about five years ago. I still wing it a lot and always–always welcome corrections. I take it as a learning opportunity.

    BTW, you’re much younger than me yet are miles ahead on this stuff. Have you been doing this since childhood, or are you just a faster learner than I am? I’m jealous.

    Again, thank you for your guidance on that! It’s much appreciated.

    [I’ll update this post with that correction]

  3. No need to be ashamed! It takes time to develop ‘filters’ for processing detail and seeing what is significant. Yes, I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, and I’ve had the privilege of birding with some very passionate and knowledgeable people who’ve taught me a lot.

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