A white-striped White-throated Sparrow

One of the most important aspects of banding birds is figuring out how old they are. Most techniques on that subject involve looking for molt limits on the wing. A molt limit among the greater coverts on the Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers (below, left) is easy to see. A molt limit is the point within one or between two feather tracts where old (retained) and new (replaced) feathers meet. Many first year birds only undergo a partial molt and are easy to age in the spring as second year (SY) when they show the sometimes obvious product of a purposeful "half-molt". Five of the inner greater coverts on the top bird are replaced, showing black centers, blue-gray edging and bluish white tips. These contrast strongly with the retained feathers to the right which show paler gray centers, buffy tips and edging, and more pronounced wear. The replaced greater coverts also contrast with the primary coverts and flight feathers, all of which are retained (compare to this bird). The bird below shows a similar pattern, but only replaced two greater coverts.

The female Black-and-white Warbler (above, right) can be aged in the spring as an after second year (ASY) by the smaller alula feather which shows white wrapping around the tip and a black center that does not separate the white and reach the tip. Both sexes of Black-and-white Warbler can be aged using this trick (compare the same feather on this SY male). A uniformly dark wing, especially the very black primary coverts and primaries help to cement this birds age as an ASY.

Sometimes molt limits are extremely obvious, even in the field on a closed wing. Summer Tanagers are a fantastic example of this. After their first prebasic molt, SY males in the spring are left with a patchwork of red and yellow feathers. The bird below replaced its tertials, two outermost secondaries, and its greater coverts. It's almost easier to see on the closed wing. This bird was the second of two Summer Tanagers we caught on April 25th during a prolonged southern slingshot weather event that littered the south coast and islands with early warblers and more. We saw additional evidence of this at Manomet with a Blue Grosbeak, Hooded Warbler, and Common Nighthawk on the property.

Two more birds below that can show fairly straightforward molt limits are SY male Eastern Towhees and Northern Cardinals. This towhee shows brown retained primaries and primary coverts contrasting nicely with the especially black replaced greater coverts. The cardinal shows a more random pattern with the most clear limit showing in the greater coverts. The inner coverts are retained along with the tertials. These feathers contrast with the redder replaced coverts and several secondaries.

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Updated: Apr 6, 2019

My desk of late has been scattered with a rainbow array of pencils. You'd be surprised how many colors the "least colorful" birds hide within their plumage. My latest style begins with an underlay of pen for the darkest areas followed by layer upon soft layer of colored pencil.

For this Marsh Wren I went with a field guide-esque style with crisp borders and a side view. These little guys are always fun to find blending with fall colors in November as they chatter in patches of cattails or phragmites.

As obsessed as I often become with sparrows and their subtle textures and colors, I've been trying to think up some brighter subjects. The local wrens don't stray far from sparrows from a design point of view. I soon found out however, that orioles are definitely brighter. I delved into some pencils I'm pretty sure I've never used on a bird before.

This flashy Altamira Oriole from a trip to Texas a year ago fit the bill perfectly.

A splash of color was welcome but didn't hold me for long as I was soon up to my neck in browns, ochres, and blacks again. A sparrow had pulled me in again, but this time it sported the relative flashiness of the Ammodramus genus. I was lucky enough to have had the privilege to enjoy a LeConte's at close range at the turn of the new year, and this bird provided me with plenty of future study material.

There isn't much I appreciate more than the subtlety of a LeConte's Sparrow mousing through dried grass clumps or a Fox Sparrow kicking up crisp fall leaves. It's definitely the little things.

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Updated: Apr 6, 2019

It was a chilly start to the day as Andy and I kicked off from Bristol before the sun even had a chance to cast a faint glow in the dark sky.

We were headed toward URI to pick up Sam who'd recently arrived back at school after winter break.

Our eventual arrival on Moonstone beach coincided closely with the sunrise; an arrival time I'd be thrilled about any other season of the year. I tend to appreciate twenty degree temperatures more when the warm midday sun is hitting my face. As painful as early morning can be in the winter it's still often worth it. The geese had not yet left the pond for their forage fields and we found Matt Schenck at the cut scanning them with a scope. With the same hope for a Greater White-fronted Goose that's been in the area we began to scan as well. A close group of Canvasbacks and a farther group of Redheads gave plenty of subject to enjoy. Each flock had their own little opening in the ice and it was funny to see them segregated as such. With no luck finding a rare goose mixed in with the Canada Geese, Matt had to head off.

He was gone only ten minutes when the most distant geese shifted positions and revealed a white-fronted to Sam who was on scope duty. Soon after that the geese began to lift off from the pond and the white-fronted led a small flock to the east.

A Long-tailed Duck flying the distant perimeter of the pond was an odd sight, and gave us a close view when it came around to passing overhead.

With the pond and the ocean reasonably well-scanned we headed back to the car, switched up some layers, and birded the thickets along the roads. Fairly productive as usual, we had two Fox Sparrows, a flock of American Tree Sparrows and five Purple Finches.

A short foray into the refuge proper gave a poor yield in terms of birds. A check of farm pond for the possibility of a chat or shrike gave us a few chickadees instead. (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S52131872)

Next stop was Weekapaug Breachway where a suddenly rough ocean made a frigid scan fairly useless. Instead we had some fun photographing loons and Red-breasted Mergansers in the channel. (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S52132061)

Arcadia came through with finches and we were treated to three Evening Grosbeaks with a pretty nice view of a glowing male, and a couple siskins. We wandered around some interesting trails for a while but didn't really find any birds aside from a flock flock of Eastern Bluebirds and some Cedar Waxwings. (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S52073414)

With college life having taken a toll on Sam who was now sleeping in the back seat, we dropped him back off at URI and headed towards Bristol via Newport. Quick scans of a few Newport area ponds revealed cold and windy conditions and bad light angles. However the sky was clear and as the sun lowered the wind was seeming to ease off. A spur of the moment idea to check the Sakonnet Greenway for sunset proved to be a great plan. Andy and I walked a loop around some of the most expansive fields and enjoyed three calling Northern Harriers, which may be a sound I've only heard once or twice before. Two White-crowned Sparrows lurked in a thicket, and a Fox Sparrow called from another. With chances for a hoped-for Short-eared Owl fading fast we neared the parking lot. The car was in view and then suddenly Andy exclaims and points. I look to see a floppy raptor floating around the field in front of us. A short-eared! The light was so dim at this point we were extremely lucky the owl had flown so close to us or we never would have seen it. A fitting end to a long day.

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