Thursday 22 March 2007

Birds I really like: The Redwing

There are some birds I like and some birds I really like. Whether a bird species is grouped with those I like or those I really like is dependent upon me having seen it or not. Basically you can say that I like a bird species as long as I have not seen it. As soon as I do, the species is upgraded to the small (but growing) elite of those species I really like.
I recently spent some time figuring out if there is a particular bird species I have seen but don't get very excited about. There was one until recently, as a matter of fact, and that species was the good old Mourning Dove. It is nothing personal but somehow I just couldn't really get that certain hurrah-feeling I usually get when spotting a bird (any one bird really) whenever I found a Mourning Dove.
Luckily - for me at least as it enhances my pleasure of birding, I don't think the Dove itself really cared that much about my affection - this has changed. The last few times I saw Mourning Doves, they were not just sitting around somewhere on a branch or a wire minding their own business with their own business being to sit somewhere minding their own business which in this case means just to sit somewhere. No, they were walking around on the ground in some brushy rural open area with a few trees, high grasses and bushes and really looked very much like a Sharp-tailed Grouse. So there it was, the special aspect of the Mourning Dove: the Grouse resemblance.

A few days ago Michael Luhn, a birder and bird photographer from "my" part of Germany, posted a few photos of a Redwing on the local email forum. He took the pictures on March 19th at Kieshofer Moor (visit here and scroll down or rather read the complete post to get an impression of the place) and I really, really like them a lot. In a remarkable twist of fate, I also happen to really, really like the Redwing as a species and am always excited when I see them, so I just had to ask Michael for a permission to use his great pictures for a post on my blog.
Yet again, incredibly, he agreed and I am very proud that this site now is host to the following pictures of a Redwing. Of course I would like to kindly ask any reader to respect Michael's copyright. It is very nice of him to let me use his pictures and if you violate his copyrights, be assured I will send a few friends to your place.

Here now are the pictures of a Redwing enjoying a well-deserved petite snack.

What makes this Redwing a Redwing?
A question easily answered: the combination of red flanks, a broad supercilium and stripes on the breast. In a North American context one could say it resembles a Waterthrush with red flanks.

The Redwing is a rather common breeder in Northern Eurasia that only very occasionally breeds in Germany. On the German Baltic Sea coast we mostly encounter it on migration.
In autumn, the sharp calls of a flock of migrating Redwings echoing down from the black nightly skies are a sure sign that winter is approaching or that you are once again returning home late from the pub. They barely stop over though on their southward migration and the real Redwing season is from late March to the middle of April when they return North. During this time, you can often find a few Redwings scanning through the large flocks of Fieldfares and at times they can be quite common, with several Hundred being encountered in one flock spread out over a large meadow or field. Even though we usually watch them out in the open, like on preferably moist grasslands, it is also very nice to find a flock of Redwings in the forests of spring. The Redwing is a species that starts singing on migration and the chorus of 50 or 100 birds in full song within a small patch of forest is a more than memorable encounter, it is breathtaking.
But to really, really like a bird, one has to look beyond beautiful. And here the Redwing also provides us with a multitude of possibilities.
First of all, the Redwing - like all thrushes as far as I know - can be aged even in spring. Let us take a look at one of Michael's pictures again:

The magic is in the Greater Coverts of the bird: most Turdus-thrushes show pale tips to their Greater Coverts in juvenile plumage and retain a few of these coverts until the next spring. On the bird above, the inner coverts have already been exchanged for adult-like feathers but the outer coverts still show the pale tip. This bird therefore is approaching its first breeding season.
This character is also fit for ageing most North American Catharus-thrushes with the exception of the Hermit Thrush which also shows pale tips on its adult Greater Coverts. In this case, we must shift to another field character of the Greater Coverts that allow us to even age the Hermit Thrush, and this additional character is the length of the feathers. Adult-like coverts are distinctly longer than juvenile coverts, as can also be seen above, and this is also the case in the Hermit Thrush as can be seen here and here. It seems the pale wing bar in adult Hermit Thrushes is most pronounced in fall/autumn and much less so in spring, but I don't know enough about this yet, so this is only a wild guess.

So now we know that the Redwing is a sign of autumn/fall, a sign of spring, is pretty good at pulling worms out of firm soil and can be aged. Is there anything more we need to know?
Yes, the subspecific identification of the Redwing.
The Redwing occurs in two distinct subspecies. The nominate form, Turdus iliacus iliacus, occupies basically the whole breeding range from Northern Europe all the way to the North of Asia. But there is a distinct race on Iceland (with a few on the Faeroes) referred to as Turdus iliacus coburni, and it is this form that mostly occurs as a vagrant in North America.
Good pictures of Turdus iliacus coburni can be found here, here, here, here and here. A short discussion on the Redwing's subspecific identification can be found at Birdforum here.
In comparison to nominate iliacus, coburni is
- larger,
- darker in general,
- shows a more heavy spotting on the breast with single spots often "melting" into stripes,
- has a more distinct head pattern
- and darker legs.

These are all characters that are difficult at best to assess in the field unless you are lucky to spot a single bird of one form within a flock of the other. I have searched for coburni on the German Baltic sea coast for the last few years (in vain) and have found most of these characters to be of only limited use because iliacus is - surprise, surprise - quite variable.

Characters like "darker", "larger" and so on are all relative and even if we find a "larger" bird, how can we know it is not a large extreme of iliacus?
The only (almost) "absolute" character I have found to be probably useful is the rather dark colouration of the legs. I have yet to see an iliacus with dark legs (haven't found one within a couple of Hundred birds I checked but am not saying it is impossible) and even though a few photos from Iceland show birds with rather pale legs, the leg colouration seems to be dark on the majority of the Iceland population and hardly ever / never as bright pink as on nominate iliacus.
Another character that might be useful is the dark colouration of the upper flanks, between the red flanks and the neck/head. In coburni, this area often appears as a solid brown extension of the brown back colouration whereas in typical iliacus this area is patterned like the rest of the breast: pale with dark stripes and spots. But this is also a rather tentative approach that probably doesn't work on all birds and needs to be tested more extensively in the field - should occasion occur.

I am now at the end of my little excursion into why I really, really like the Redwing and I hope you have also started to take a liking for this little bird of almost unlimited possibilities.

For an interesting gallery, visit Surfbirds, click on "Search Galleries", type in "Redwing" and see what happens. Most of the pics were taken in the UK and North America, so the subspecific identification is quite a hot question to investigate!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hi every person,

I identified after previous months and I'm very excited much to commence participating. I are basically lurking for the last month but figured I would be joining and sign up.

I am from Spain so please forgave my speaking english[url=].[/url][url=].[/url][url=].[/url]