Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] American Goldfinch, also known as the Eastern Goldfinch or the Wild Canary, Spinus (Carduelis) tristis, photographed on the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, Brazoria, Texas. [I will identify this bird for you in 48 hours]

Image: Joseph Kennedy, 5 January 2010 [larger view].

Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope with TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/320s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

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

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 John Callender
    January 26, 2010

    The beak seems a little on the long side for this ID, but I’m going with the species whose scientific name makes me think of a couple of 18th-century European noblemen getting into an argument over a game of whist, a challenge to meet with pistols at dawn, and a tragic outcome leading to much sadness.

  2. #2 Ken Trease
    January 26, 2010

    Agree on the ID but I notice several sources with a different scientific name. Has this bird recently changed scientific names?

  3. #3 psweet
    January 26, 2010

    Ken — I think that the genus has changed several times, although not too recently. The specific epithet I don’t think has, unless there was some lumping of (now) subspecies. I’d have to go back and check my copy of Bent for that.

  4. #4 Adrian
    January 26, 2010

    Or is this the same two gentlemen dueling with lesser consequences?

  5. #5 blf
    January 26, 2010

    A duck. Because it’s yellow. Admittedly, it doesn’t look too rubbery or plasticy—perhaps it’s a bit weathered?

  6. #6 David
    January 26, 2010

    Thank you John and Adrian,

    Unless you are suggesting one of the mynahs from Madagascar, I suspect you are referencing one of the species whose genus reflects their fondness for thistles and Adrian hinting perhaps at the “lesser consequence” being a little melody on the lyre?!

    If I’m right (one of my favorite species, getting ready to change color soon) and there is debate over which “sister” it is, assuming we’re not talking about “pine trees”, then both can be very similar at this time of year, although Adrian’s may be just outside the range for that part of the Texas Gulf Coast…

    but the definitive distinction would be the color of the undertail coverts, white for John, yellow for Adrian…

    or am I way off base here? I’ll see the photo when I get home in about an hour but can check for updates until then!

  7. #7 Adrian
    January 26, 2010

    You’ve reached first base David. I was going to say dulcimer rather than lyre, but I might be a red herring as I agree with John.

  8. #8 David Hilmy
    January 26, 2010

    If we’re talking about the females, then the most obvious distinguishing features are not the color of the wingbars, because these are a little variable, but in Adrian’s possibility the upperparts are greener than John’s and the underparts yellower howeever for me the white patch on the wing is key- Adrian’s will have it, John’s will not…

  9. #9 David Hilmy
    January 26, 2010

    Ah, thanks Adrian!

    Which takes me I guess onto the taxonomy- I think Paul is right, the species names is as first described by Linnaeus but his original genus is now out of date, having been merged with the European “thistle-eaters”; Sibley and Monroe, and Clements use the latter

  10. #10 David Hilmy
    January 26, 2010

    Don’t think #2 is on the Brazoria checklist

  11. #11 David Hilmy
    January 26, 2010

    Ah, it is as you all seem to have agreed (with one perverse exception) and certainly favorites at some of the gardens I’ve built in the DC Metro area where they regularly visit mid-Atlantic native perennials like the Smooth Oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Orange Coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida), and the huge Cut-leaf Coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata)

  12. #12 Bardiac
    January 26, 2010

    After a particularly frustrating day, I feel like a total idiot. I’m not seeing any birds named “Fuckwad” but that’s all that comes to mine when I think of 18th century noblement (okay, I’ll ‘fess that that’s the politest thing that comes to mind).

    Could I get someone to help a beginner with the id, please?

  13. #13 lectric lady
    January 26, 2010

    It’s beak seems weird to me. Too big for it’s face, and darker than what one would expect. Knowing that beak size is somewhat variable (eg. Rosemary and Peter Grant’s work on Galapagos finches), does anyone know about the variability in this species? As an aside, here is a great read about the Grants: “The Beak of the Finch” by Jonathan Weiner.

  14. #14 psweet
    January 26, 2010

    Bardiac: this bird shows a fairly sharp, conical bill. It’s too thick for a warbler or vireo. The bill is too small for any of the grosbeaks, and too pointed for the buntings. That only leaves sparrows and finches, and the utter lack of streaks should be a big help. It would also be a good idea to check the date of the photo — this species shows a good deal of seasonal change, and most people are much more familiar with the summer plumage.

    Regarding which of the two species, Sibley’s (but not NatGeo or Peterson) shows a distinct difference in the length of the bill, with the smaller one showing a proportionally shorter bill with distinctly angled tomia (the cutting edges where the mandibles meet). And the bill color fits a winter individual of either species, from what I can see. The bill does seem big, but a close look at the face shows feathers that are in disarray. So the apparent size of the bill is probably due to a lack of covering near the base.

  15. #15 Adrian
    January 27, 2010

    Bardiac, As David explains the trick is to first narrow the field down to which family the bird belongs to. Obviously most families can be eliminated with ease, ducks, waders, woodpeckers etc. It then becomes down to individual features, body shape, posture, bill shape etc. Knowing finches, buntings and “blackbirds” have conical bills narrows the field further. Then a good field guide comes in with plumage details and structure to get to the answer. I hope this helps explain the process.
    David, the reserve list gives Lesser as an accidental.

  16. #16 David Hilmy
    January 27, 2010

    Bardiac, I think Adrian meant you to refer to Paul’s keying process at #14- it wasn’t me- I admit nothing and deny everything!

    You should be able to get this bird down to one of four possibilities, one of which (named after an American ornithologist) can be excluded because of range (only in Califonia/Baja) and another, the Pine Siskin, exactly because of Paul’s remark concerning the total lack of streaking on the underparts… of the two left over (apparently both possible in Brazoria, thanks Adrian) you will need to follow Paul’s hint that this species has two distinct color phases depending on season (I think this is the only songbird that goes through a complete moult?) so in January, you are looking for references to the non-breeding or “basic” coloring- from that point on I think there are enough clues in the photo above for you to determine which of the two species it must be and also which gender… (if you are still stumped, you can cheat by looking at the wildflower photos I attached a couple of comments ago which show a male in breeding plumage)

  17. #17 Adrian
    January 27, 2010

    My abject apologies to both Paul and David, I must learn to check who posts what.

  18. #18 David Hilmy
    January 27, 2010

    But I can sometimes be sweet too!

  19. #19 psweet
    January 27, 2010

    Actually, David, I think Bobolinks go through a complete pre-alternate molt as well. (Or does complete imply wing molts too? In that case I’m not sure either of them does.)

  20. #20 David Hilmy
    January 27, 2010

    My bad, Paul, I think I meant to write two moults (or could have said “only finch”)… the following songbirds (subfamily Passeri) also have a complete moult each year: chickadees, flycatchers, swallows, thrushes, and vireos; while buntings, tanagers, and warblers have one complete moult and one pre-nup partial moult… goldfinches and bobolinks (and wrens?) undergo two complete molts each year

  21. #21 Annoyed
    January 27, 2010

    PLEASE answer the bird quiz instead of arguing or discussing other things back and forth. You are all very annoying.
    Grrll, why don’t you remove these fools?

  22. #22 lectric lady
    January 27, 2010


    One can always scroll down through the “arguing or discussing other things back and forth” in the comments. I often do. Sometimes I love it, especially if I know a little something about the bird.


  23. #23 "GrrlScientist"
    January 28, 2010

    hello annoyed,

    the comments threads belong to my readers (and i see myself as a guest there) so unless there are physical threats of violence being made against other readers (or duplicate comments or the appearance of spam), i leave them alone. that said, i actually enjoy reading the “arguing or discussing things back and forth” because it is educational, it is an important part of part of community-building, and it is what would happen if we were all sitting in a pub, sipping whatever beverage suits each person’s fancy, and looking at birds there (minus the annoying and health-damaging cigarette smoke) — and every day, i wish i could be birding in a pub with my readers!

  24. #24 Bob O'H
    January 28, 2010

    i wish i could be birding in a pub with my readers!

    It would need some big, clean windows. But the species list might be interesting later on.

  25. #25 David Hilmy
    January 28, 2010


    I think it would be pointless to break down the dialogue on this post and analyse why various comments considerably add to the body of knowledge of all involved, forces one to refocus on key identification marks, or fill in the important historical or taxonomical or ecosytemical contexts of the species but still with consideration for those who are still relatively new or inexperienced in birding, however one needs to simply look at the Topic Categories to notice “Quiz” is not suggested but “Birding”, “Education”, “Mystery”, and “Teaching” are… alternatively you could just wait 46 hours and reread the post title as though skimming through a Field Guide or even, dare I say it, just buy one and have the “answers” even sooner…

  26. #26 Adrian
    January 28, 2010

    Annoyed, Would you prefer it if the first poster just named the bird straight away? Surely a quiz which just reads out the answer adds nothing to the understanding of how to derive the answer. As someone from outside the USA I have learnt a lot about the native birds from these exchanges, I have found interesting websites which expand my knowledge of linguistics, ecology etc thanks to the posters here. Also the knowledge of the locals like David and Paul adds a lot more than just ID to these mysteries. Perhaps you could tell us what you want from these postings from Grrl so we can discuss further.

  27. #27 psweet
    January 28, 2010

    Annoyed — I can certainly see how the inside jokes and such could be annoying, when it’s clear that the commenter knows what the darn bird is, but it’s equally clear that they aren’t going to tell you. I can only say two things, that may or may not help. First, the idea is actually to not “spoil the fun” for those who need or want the practice of working things out, not to offend anyone. Second, I’m a teacher — and isn’t that what teacher’s are supposed to do?

    On the other hand, the discussions about particular field marks, the meaning of coloration, etc. are about our own learning processes as well. The birds where we actually have some disagreement are the real fun ones, where all involved are forced to teach first themselves then everyone else something new about the birds.

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