Monday, January 9, 2012

The joy of a new bird

Sometimes a seemingly boring little bird can be the highlight of your day.

In a new habitat, when there are droves of new birds, the excitement of a little bird like this can get lost.

Many flycatchers are notoriously difficult to identify. There are over 400 Tyrant-flycatchers in the world (all found only in the Americas) and around 195 species have been recorded in Ecuador. Apart from a few bright or unique species, most are grey, brown, or yellow, or mixes of those colors. A good number of species can only be told apart by voice.  Generally speaking, these are confusing, dull birds.

Tiny bird, even at just a few meters distance

This bird, however, can be identified without voice even though there are fairly similar species and its features are not stand-out distinctive. The trouble is that it is a pretty small bird. At just 11 cm from bill to tail (less than the length of two pinkie fingers), the details can be difficult to make out when you are looking at it from a distance. The field guide reports it to be “widespread and often common.” I may have seen it before, but been unable to read the details. Many times, a small flycatcher gets away and I mark “NO ID flycatcher” in my notes.

I had actually been to this spot of abandoned cultivation and a few large trees a dozen times, but I don’t usually stand on the particular side of the trees where I did today. I noticed one small bird flying up, landing on a small branch, and then flying into a ball. It was a nest! To avoid disturbing the birds, I hid behind a shrub to observe and photograph.

The nest

Sometimes the bird perched in full view. Sometimes it got into the nest quickly, obscuring its details. I eventually saw that there were two individual birds bringing berries into the nest at separate times. The flashy yellow on the wings stood out. It had a plain whitish breast and was brown on top. It clearly had an eye-ring and yellow lores (a type of marking that stretches from above the bill to the eye). As I scanned the nine pages of flycatcher illustrations in my field guide, I could rule out most of them based on these details. Fortunately, I was able to get some high-quality photographs, zoom in, and thus confirm the identification. Golden-faced Tyrannulet, it’s nice to meet you.

Golden-faced Tyrannulet (Zimmerius chrysops)

This is one of the things I love about staying in one place for an extended period. There were much more colorful birds to see, but I didn't need to hurry. I took my time and surveyed everything I could about these two little individuals and their nest.

This is not just a new name and number to add to my list. It is not just about seeing a new bird. It is partly about identifying the bird and what that entails, like preparing your mind to examine patterns, shapes, sounds, behaviors, and other clues in an unfamiliar environment. I found this bird myself, at no one’s recommendation, and took the time to sort it all out.  Especially with confusing birds, it can be like solving a mystery. But it is also about exploring the world and examining all the tiny pieces that make it up.

And on a day like today, sometimes you get lucky and see a tiny piece you’ve never seen before.

Golden-faced Tyrannulet in nest, near Nanegal, Ecuador

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