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Monday, October 28, 2013

Look-alike Birding in the Champlain Valley

A late-October trip to the Champlain Valley is sure to turn up some “good birds”.  And good birds are exactly what a group with the North Branch Nature Center’s fall trip found as they explored Chittenden and Addison counties this weekend (10/26/13).  Two of the most intriguing finds were rare “look-alike” species that have very similar, more common counterparts.  

The first look-alike was a Ross’s Goose, which another group of birders had already located when we arrived to the goose viewing area at Dead Creek.  This species is rare in Vermont and looks like a miniature of its larger cousin, the Snow Goose.  It is easy to see how a Ross’s Goose could be difficult to locate when it is mingling with a flock of thousands of Snow Geese!  In addition to its diminutive size, the Ross’s Goose can also be identied by its shorter, stubbier beak and the lack of a “grin patch” amongst other subtle characteristics.

The difference between Snow and Ross’s Goose is night and day when compared to the next dubious duo.  A mixed flock of dowitchers has been present at the Brilyea Access of Dead Creek for weeks.  The two species are Long-billed and Short-billed, although bill length is rarely an identifying characteristic.  Long-billed Dowitcher is especially rare in Vermont, but either species is unexpected this late into October.  To tell these birds apart takes patience and experience.  A combination of variable traits are used to distinguish them, including but not limited to bill length, body shape, color, pattern, and overall impression.  Our group continued the debate about which species we had seen well after the trip, sharing photos of the puzzling birds by email.  The jury is still out!

Here is our full species list from the trip:

Snow Goose
Short/Long-billed Dowitcher
Ross's Goose
Long-billed Dowitcher
Canada Goose
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
American Black Duck
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Black Duck x Mallard (hybrid)
Rock Pigeon
Green-winged Teal
Mourning Dove
Lesser Scaup
Downy Woodpecker
Surf Scoter
Hairy Woodpecker
White-winged Scoter
Blue Jay
Common Merganser
American Crow
Ruddy Duck
Common Raven
Common Loon
Black-capped Chickadee
Pied-billed Grebe
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Horned Grebe
Carolina Wren
Double-crested Cormorant
American Robin
Great Blue Heron
European Starling
Northern Harrier
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Cooper's Hawk
Northern Cardinal
Bald Eagle
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch
Greater Yellowlegs
House Sparrow

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