Mystery Bird: Female Mountain Bluebird, Sialia currucoides

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[Mystery bird] Female Mountain Bluebird, Sialia currucoides, photographed on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: Eva Gerdts, April 2008 [larger view].

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
Most of us will have identified this bird at a glance — the challenge is not in the identifying, but in the unraveling of the intellectual process that allowed us to say, without hesitation, “Mountain Bluebird.” There’s something to the assertion that we just got it “on jizz,” “because that’s what it looks like”; but if we stop there, if we fall short of questioning (and admiring) the way the birder’s brain works, we’re depriving ourselves of most of the pleasure of birding, and others of the benefit of our experience.
This is a gray bird perched on a wire; the wire tells us that it is small. Starting at the rear end, where we always begin with a mystery bird, we see a grayish tail (with a broken feather or two) and an ice-blue wing. Now we’re getting somewhere. This bird is too small for a jay, too slender-billed for a Passerina bunting, too heavily built for a swallow…. It must be a bluebird. And a second look at that wing shows us an absurdly long wingtip, the primary tips reaching more than halfway down the tail — a distinctive character ruling out the other species of Sialia. The gray head with a fine eyering, gray underparts with just a hint of warm buff across the upper breast, and faint spangling beneath also fit Mountain Bluebird.
So why’s this a Mountain Bluebird? Just because. And just because of the characteristics that new birders need to learn — and experienced birders fuse unconsciously into knowledge.
Review all mystery birds to date.


About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: Female Mountain Bluebird, Sialia currucoides

  1. I’m going to call that a female Mountain Bluebird. The general structure and posture says “bluebird” to me, and the lack of any rusty at all underneath leads me away from Western Bluebird. I’m given pause by what looks like white outer tail feathers, which made me wonder about Townsend’s Solitaire, but the beak looks longer than I’d expect for a solitaire.
    I also spent some time trying to make this bird into a flycatcher of some sort, but nothing seemed to fit. The all-dark beak, especially, didn’t play nicely with the various flycatcher illustrations in Sibley.
    When you come right down to it, I really don’t know. But if I have to guess, I’m going to guess that it’s a very drab female Mountain Bluebird.

  2. Bob O'H says:

    Um, but John. It’s not blue.

  3. Al G says:

    I would have to agree that this bird is a female Mountain Bluebird based on the size of the bird and bill shape plus the bluish wash to the primaries

  4. T. Nightingale says:

    I’m a novice birder, but I want to saw a titmouse of some kind? Bill is too long for bushtit, but right length for titmouse, and crest looks similar.

  5. The Ridger says:

    I wanted to say titmouse, too. But I don’t live where there are mountain bluebirds. So I did some googling, and I think, based on the face and the blue on the wings, that that’s what it is.

  6. kamaka says:

    First look…empidonax
    eye-ring, whitish outer retrice, crest, locale, empidonax olberholseri
    drab coloration…late summer (pre-molt) dusky flycatcher
    But how is empidonax pronounced?? I’ve known the word for 35 years and have no idea how to say it.

  7. kamaka says:

    Ah, I guess that April picture date kills the late summer thing

  8. Rick Wright says:

    Scientific names are pronounced as they would be in your native language. In English, we say em PID uh nax. But there’s really no “right” way; these are names, not words.

  9. travelgirl says:

    i have to say empidonax (eye-ring, head-crest) as well, but without hearing it, it’s a guess as to which of the gazillions of ’em 🙂

  10. Jerry Friedman says:

    Rick, I hope you’re noticing the differences between the people who respond to this quiz and the people you imagine.
    Although I’m lucky enough to have seen a fair number of Mountain Bluebirds, I too thought this was a flycatcher till I read John Callender’s response.
    As for the “ice-blue wing”, I looked at the picture in GIMP and turned the blue saturation all the way up. The majority of the wing has no blue. However, it has some parts with faintly bluish pixels. This could easily be an artifact—there are faintly bluish pixels on the bill, too. A gray wing would still be consistent with a female Mountain Bluebird, especially since bluebirds’ blue depends on the angle of the viewer and the light. But even non-color-blind people can hardly be expected to see the wing as blue, especially considering the variation among monitors.

  11. Rick Wright says:

    Dear Jerry,
    I’m famously, starkly unimaginative. But if you disagree with the identification, I’d be delighted to be educated!

  12. Jerry Friedman says:

    Sorry, Socrates, I meant to make it clear that even if the wing hadn’t shown any blue, I would have agreed with your identification.
    As for imagination, I think your writing is imaginative in the best sense. My point was that your “Most of us will have identified this bird at a glance” wasn’t as accurate as your bird identifications, so you may be misjudging your readership here. No doubt, though, you noticed that without my pointing it out.

  13. jerry, please be kind to rick, or i will resort to moderating all your comments before they are published. rick very kindly VOLUNTEERED to write these analyses for ALL of us to learn from and i, for one, deeply appreciate his hard work and dedication in what is a thankless task. i do not want to lose rick’s insightful and interesting contributions to this collaborative effort because of unduly harsh communications or possibly due to other, underlying resentments. i assume my readers agree with me. birding is supposed to be fun, after all!

  14. On that question of how obvious the blue in the wing is, I confess I didn’t really notice it myself at first, even when I was looking for it (based on my feeling that that really did look like a bluebird). It sort of looks like I could be seeing “through” the wing feathers to the background color, rather than seeing a blue wing. When I clicked through to the larger image, though, then the fact that I was looking at a blue wing jumped out at me.
    I confess I felt a little bit of chagrin at reading Rick’s “Most of us will have identified this bird at a glance,” since it took me some effort to come up with my answer. And I’ve been wrong often enough lately to get a kick out of it when I’m right, and to harbor just a tiny bit of a bruised ego at the idea that my accomplishment wasn’t such a big deal. But that’s my failing; it’s no fault of Mr. Wright.
    One of the things I love most about birding is the opportunity it provides for continuous learning. Forty years ago I was studying the silhouettes in the endpapers of my Peterson guide, getting to where I could classify a bird to the family level based on shape. And it has just continued from there (though with some long interruptions). These days it’s immature gulls, female ducks, and distant shorebirds, but I still basically feel like a doofus when I’m scratching my head over a tricky ID. One thing I really appreciate about the Mystery Bird of the Day is that unlike the real world, an authoritative answer actually is provided eventually. It may embarrass or elate me, but either way I’m happy to have it.
    When I’m lucky enough to get out in the field with someone who really knows the finer points, I consider it a great privilege. It’s the same way here, and I hope very much that Rick Wright will continue providing his insights.