Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Peek-a-boo! [Mystery bird] Western Screech-Owl, Megascops kennicottii, photographed in Arizona. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Richard Ditch, 2005 [larger view].

Date Time Original: 2005:06:11 13:51:11
Exposure Time: 1/40
F-Number: 5.60
ISO: 500

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

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:

We’re going to cheat in a minor way, and take full advantage of our knowledge that this bird was photographed in Arizona, where the feather “horns” and bright yellow eyes quickly reduce the possibilities to the two screech-owls. The transversely barred underparts make this a juvenile, and so plumage characters are going to be of precious little use. None of the leaves in the image is in focus, and I don’t immediately recognize the bark of the limb the bird is perched in, leaving me at a loss in the question of this bird’s habitat, too.

What are we left with? The bill of this mystery bird is dark, with just a hint of a pale tip; that points away from Whiskered (or, for that matter, from Eastern) and towards Western Screech-Owl. We can see some of a robust tarsus, again suggestive of Western rather than Whiskered, but the toes — which would be grotesquely thin on a Whiskered — are completely hidden.

In the field, I’d try to place myself so that I had a view of the toes. I’d also try to figure out what elevation I was at: both species occur at middle altitudes in the canyons, but only Western is at all expected below about 4,000 feet. And I’d look around, hard, to see where the parents were hiding.

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 John Callender
    October 31, 2008

    I’m calling this a Western Screech-Owl, based on the proportions (which tell me it’s a small owl), the ear tufts (which tell me it’s not any of the tuftless small owls), the yellow eyes (which tell me it’s not the Flammulated Owl), and the dark bill with a light tip (which tell me it’s not the Eastern Screech-Owl).

  2. #2 JPS
    October 31, 2008

    I say screech owl too based on the small size, the gray color and the ear tufts.

  3. #3 chas
    October 31, 2008

    could be whiskered screech owl (1st choice) or western screech owl based on striped color, ear tufts and location

  4. #4 Georgia
    October 31, 2008

    Western screech-owl. These eyes look yellow with no orangish color to them.

  5. #5 Bill
    October 31, 2008

    Western Screech-Owl, Mexican Adult – based on comparisons with the presentations in the “big” Sibley. Went with the Mexican based on the Arizona location. What bothers me the most (since it all bothers me) is that this bird’s breast seems more barred than streaked. The facial pattern above and below the beak also pushes me in the Western Screech-Owl side. In the field, I would still hesitate until I heard it although if I had this much time (consulted four field guide), I might just be frustrated.

  6. #6 JohnB
    October 31, 2008

    I’m going to call it a young (past fledgling stage but not quite adult) Whiskered Screech Owl. It’s obviously one of the screech owls, but Eastern can be eliminated by range, and according to Sibley, the young Whiskered is more coarsely barred than Western.

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