Image: Richard Ditch, 2008 [larger view].
Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
It was a cold, windy day at New Jersey’s Sandy Hook, and our teeth chattered and our eyes teared as we stood knee-high in snow, taking turns at the scope that held the image of a juvenile Gyrfalcon. Suddenly there came a jeering scream from the sky above us, and an Aratinga parrot shot overhead, finally disappearing in the haze and mist over Staten Island.
A classic psittacid encounter: unexpected, fleetingly fast, and ultimately frustrating. Had we been in the sultry wilds of a tropical continent, it might have been easier; we might at least have eliminated some possibilities. But in northern New Jersey, and in any urban area in North America, at any time of year, anything is possible. Well-known established populations of such birds as Monk Parakeet are joined all the time by escapes of dozens of other parrot species, and it requires experience and real presence of mind to identify any given individual as it streaks across the sky.
North America in 2008 has more parrot species than it has ever had before. With the extinction of Carolina Parakeet almost a century ago, and the apparent extirpation of the nomadic Thick-billed Parrot, we should be down to zero. But any modern field guide tells the truth: they’re everywhere now, birds from Mexico mixing with birds from South America, Africa, Australia, the far east. And so we have to cast our identification nets wide if we are going to diagnose this stubby little bird, photographed, I suspect, at a famous birding spot in Arizona.
“Stubby” is our first clue. Starting at the rear, we find this bird almost tailless; at the other end, the neck is thick, the head bulky, and the bill hugely swollen. That structural observation rules out a large number of slimmer, long-tailed parrots, and combined with the “shielded” plumage pattern — an orange half-hood against the green of the body plumage — points us to the genus Agapornis, rendered straightforwardly in English as “lovebird.”
This plumage pattern is shared by two species, Nyasa Lovebird and Peach-faced Lovebird. Nyasa has an orangish bill, a teardrop-shaped eyering, and a green rump, while our quiz bird shows the dull horn-colored bill, narrow eyering, and turquoise rump of a Peach-faced Lovebird.
This charming and scrappy little parrot is most easily seen in Angola, Namibia, and Phoenix — or try your local pet shop, where you can probably find artificially bred color variants and hybrids, too. This species is a frequent escape throughout the US, and has established persistent breeding populations in Arizona over the last 25 years or so. Nearly as strange as my Gyrfalcon experience was watching a small flock of Peach-faced Lovebirds feed on the ground with a Harris’s Sparrow at Gilbert Water Ranch a couple of years ago.
No merely regional field guide is going to help in identifying exotic parrots in the US. Instead, you will need one or both of the two most important identification guides to these colorful birds (review here) — and a fast eye as they career through your neighborhood.
Review all mystery birds to date.