Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] photographed near the Larsen Lake Blueberry Farm in Bellevue, Washington. [No one, not even the photographer, knows the ID of the bird that made this snow-print. The photographer is seeking your help IDing this bird]

Image: Ben Bardill, December 2008 (many thanks to Denny Granstrand for obtaining permission to share this image with us) [larger view].

There’s a second image below the jump that might give you a better idea of this bird’s size.

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

[Mystery bird] photographed near the Larsen Lake Blueberry Farm in Bellevue, Washington. [No one, not even the photographer, knows the ID for this snow-print. The photographer is seeking your help IDing this bird]

Image: Ben Bardill, December 2008 (many thanks to Denny Granstrand for obtaining permission to share this image with us).

Review all mystery birds to date.

Comments

  1. #1 Adrian
    January 28, 2010

    Archeopteryx?

  2. #2 David Hilmy
    January 28, 2010

    Oh Adrian, giving away the answer to “the quiz” already?

  3. #3 FUNKYDEBUNKER
    January 28, 2010

    Speaking as a Canadian who has travelled to Florida for many winters, the answer is quite obvious: it is a snowbird.

  4. #4 John Callender
    January 28, 2010

    A ruler in one of the shots would be really helpful, though if we had a time machine to insert one, we could just dial it back a few hours and get the bird itself.

    Do we think the prints were left at night? Or during the day? If the former, then I’d have to think along the lines grrl was when she named the Flickr images. If the latter, I dunno; maybe an American Crow?

  5. #5 Adrian
    January 28, 2010

    Seriously, this looks like a strike from a raptor or owl going from right to left. I would pick Owl sp. Could Ben narrow the search down a bit by telling us which species he gets around there?

  6. #6 psweet
    January 28, 2010

    Adrian: around that part of Washington, you should get: Great Horned, Barred, Spotted (but it would be quite a yard that would get those), Snowy (but not likely in town, unless they’re across the street from an airport), Short-eared (again, not likely in town), Long-eared, Western Screech, N. Pygmy (probably not in town), and N. Saw-whet. You’d also get a bunch of hawks — in town, I would expect that Red-tailed and Cooper’s, maybe Sharpie or even Goshawk if there is any woodlots nearby, would be the most expected.

  7. #7 darwinsdog
    January 28, 2010

    I’m with John: I’d say a corvid. It came down from the right, tail drug in the snow obscuring footprints. Wingbeats to the left as it took off. I’d say black-billed magpie.

  8. #8 John Callender
    January 28, 2010

    Actually, I interpreted the curving double trail on the right as walking footprints. Though I agree that the left side looks like a takeoff.

  9. #9 Russell
    January 28, 2010

    Someone using a feather duster to pull a mean trick on their neighboring birder.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    January 28, 2010

    Yeah, feet made deep double trail, then dragging tail coverts smoothed & obscured distinct footprints. Magpie’s long tail more likely to accomplish this than a crow’s.

  11. #11 Adrian
    January 28, 2010

    I’m not sure that a magpie’s tail feathers would be hard enough to gouge out a mark this deep, with the same applying to a corvid. It still looks to me like a talon- forward strike with faint wing impressions on the left and heavier downbeats on the right for take-off. This also appears to be too large a mark for something like a Magpie. The primary imprints seem too short for a raptor so I’ll stick with owl, Western Screech, Pygmy and Saw-whet are too small so Long-eared or Barn Owl for me.
    John, what does Grrl say on the flickr pics as I can’t access them?

  12. #12 Adrian
    January 28, 2010

    I’m not sure that a magpie’s tail feathers would be hard enough to gouge out a mark this deep, with the same applying to a corvid. It still looks to me like a talon- forward strike with faint wing impressions on the right, some “manteling” marks and heavier downbeats on the left for take-off. This also appears to be too large a mark for something like a Magpie. The primary imprints seem too short for a raptor so I’ll stick with owl, Western Screech, Pygmy and Saw-whet are too small so Long-eared or Barn Owl for me.
    John, what does Grrl say on the flickr pics as I can’t access them?

  13. #13 Adrian
    January 28, 2010

    Please ignore #11 as I sent in error before I corrected it. I’ll get the hang of this new-fangled technology yet.

  14. #14 darwinsdog
    January 28, 2010

    The tail feathers didn’t gouge out the deep double marks, the feet did. The tail feathers merely smoothed over the foot tracks, obscuring them. Owls typically take prey on the wing. This bird alighted in the snow then took off again. If this was a prey strike, where are the tracks of the prey? The impressions of the primary flight feathers appear to be too hard & distinct to be an owl’s; there’s no indication of the sound muffling bristly fringe of an owl’s flight feathers. As for size, this is very difficult to judge from the photo. What was the angle at which the camera was held? Was the photographer standing or kneeling/squatting? We would need to know in order to assess the size of the imprint. It would indeed be instructive to know the time of day (or night) the impression was made. If at night, the case for an owl would be improved. As is, I’m sticking with magpie.

  15. #15 Bob O'H
    January 28, 2010

    If those outer marks coming from the left are feet, wouldn’t they be parallel?

    Hmmm.

    I’m also wondering if the last wingprints, on the right, are suggesting that the bird was turning, or at least leaning, to the left.

  16. #16 Roger
    January 28, 2010

    Interesting. There are no tail marks in the snow but two tracks probably from two different birds, One set breaks to the right and the other to the left and they form a tail pattern towards the rear. Lots of other wing impressions that are faint in the snow.

    No guesses from me although I thought magpie as well until I played with the image.

  17. #17 psweet
    January 28, 2010

    Ooops — I forgot Barn Owl. Sorry, Adrian.

    I think there’s a problem with Magpie. I seem to recall, and Sibley’s, NatGeo, and Peterson’s all confirm, that Magpies aren’t normally found west of the Cascades. In other words, in Bellevue they would be vagrants at best.

    Adrian, without a clear scale, I’d guess Great Horned. They’re actually the most common larger owl in suburban environments here in the states.

    There may be an explanation for why there are no tracks of the prey. Some owls (especially Great Gray) are known for hearing and taking rodents under several inches or more of snow.

  18. #18 darwinsdog
    January 28, 2010

    Magpies occur along the Columbia to the coast.

    A mouse under the snow certainly would explain the absence of tracks. So would a smaller bird alighting on the snow and almost immediately being taken by a hawk or owl. Perhaps we’re seeing the trackway of a smaller bird that was struck by a larger ornithivore that left the wing marks. An accipiter?

  19. #19 Adrian
    January 28, 2010

    Darwinsdog, I don’t think that owls take prey on the wing, they take terrestrial prey, particularly rodents or small birds. If the pic was taken during the day it could be either a raptor or owl as owls tend to hunt both day and night in winter.
    Paul, I didn’t realise that Great Horned was an urban bird as the European Eagle Owls tend to stay away from habitation.

  20. #20 psweet
    January 28, 2010

    I was wondering about that, Adrian. I’m not sure I would classify Great Horned as an urban bird, exactly, but certainly any decent-sized woodlot or larger city park could have them.
    Darwinsdog — that’s good to know. The summer I spent out there we barely saw the Columbia — I was mostly farther north or south.

  21. #21 Adrian
    January 28, 2010

    #18 Darwinsdog, I’d go along with that, it all depends at what time of day the attack took place. I still can’t see any “fingered” primary imprints to confirm a raptor though.
    I think we should agree that it could be either without any other information.

  22. #22 csteely
    January 28, 2010

    Bellevue is pretty close to Seattle – I think magpies are more common east of the Cascades. What about Common Raven? They’ve certainly been known to play in the snow even while not chasing prey.

  23. #23 MadScientist
    January 29, 2010

    If that’s an owl it’s one of the larger varieties. The outline of the wings is reminiscent of an owl, or an eagle, or a few other raptors. The fortuitous shadow of that tree extending up to the imprint gives a fairly good idea of the size of the beast. My guess is that the imprint is about 3ft across from wingtip to wingtip and the wings are obviously not fully extended – that’s a pretty big bird.

  24. #24 "GrrlScientist"
    January 29, 2010

    although i never birded larson lake or the LL blueberry farm when i lived in seattle, i feel comfortable saying it is probably not a magpie. i have never seen a magpie in the seattle area (and bellevue is just across lake washington from seattle — a 20 minute drive, at most).

    common ravens are quite unusual in this area — too shy? not sure, but they do avoid the populated areas, although they live all around seattle in the mountains and wooded areas, and sometimes fly over seattle.

    spotted owls are another unlikely species in this area (too heavily populated and too lightly wooded) although a barred owl or great horned are distinctly possible. i think that the small owl species are too small for this snowprint (although there are plenty of small owl species living and breeding in the area). other, larger, owl species that turn up in the area include great grey, long- and short-eared owls, and during irruption years, snowy owls. was 2008 a snowy irruption year? it might have been. barn owl is an interesting possibility …

    red-tailed hawks are very common in this area. there is a resident population as well as several migratory populations that overlap with them .. summer migrants, winter migrants, juveniles, etc., the seattle area is literally jam-packed with many hundreds of RTHA of several subspecies/color morphs at any one time.

    i’ve sent the link to denny to pass on to bill, the photographer. i will email denny again today to see if bill will answer your questions today .. maybe we can figure this one out for him?

    and no, i don’t know what this bird is (not even on the magical flickr page i uploaded it to). knowing how much you all love a mystery, i was hoping we could figure it out together, or at least narrow it down to several species …

  25. #25 darwinsdog
    January 29, 2010

    Magpies occur along the Columbia to the coast.

    A mouse under the snow certainly would explain the absence of tracks. So would a smaller bird alighting on the snow and almost immediately being taken by a hawk or owl. Perhaps we’re seeing the trackway of a smaller bird that was struck by a larger ornithivore that left the wing marks. An accipiter?

  26. #26 darwinsdog
    January 29, 2010

    Magpies occur along the Columbia to the coast.

    A mouse under the snow certainly would explain the absence of tracks. So would a smaller bird alighting on the snow and almost immediately being taken by a hawk or owl. Perhaps we’re seeing the trackway of a smaller bird that was struck by a larger ornithivore that left the wing marks. An accipiter?

  27. #27 David Hilmy
    January 29, 2010

    My turn… actually, my starting point was not the tracks but the quality of the snow- it appears relatively deep (deeper than the tracks show as suggested by the drop marks visble at the tree’s drip line) but more importantly (and unfortunately this is where the inadequacies of the English language are exposed as opposed to the Inuit who have approximately 17 different words for “snow” through vocabulary, inflection polysynthesis, etc., while we just have the one) it looks as though the surface has a relatively large crystalline crust of ice- these conditions would certainly permit for a small rodent to travel under relatively unimpeded but if it was detected by an owl and intercepted, I would expect some kind of deeper penetration at some point amidst the marks shown and I don’t see that… the same ice crust would permit small birds to alight without leaving foot prints and so that remains a possibility and certainly a possible target for predation from above- as I don’t see any real signs of struggle, and certainly no feathers or blood, if there was a predator’s attack, I think only an owl would leave little trace…

    as for the tracks themselves, it could only be attributable to one of the five “F”s: fight, flight (escape), feeding, frolicking, or reproduction- I think 1, and because of the season, 5 should be excluded, leaving escape (a sudden fright by an alighted bird- passing hawk, etc.), feeding or frolicking as possibilities- as I see no catch point, I don’t think we are seeing a raptor attack and the shape of the wings does lend itself to some sort of corvid and one that landed with a purpose traveling and the taking off: magpie, crow, raven…

    in a previous post I showed how Black-billed Magpies tend not to land in snow with their tails dragging, but instead they tend to be sensitive to the conditions and hold them upright until landed… that is not to say it didn’t land and the settle down but the tail “drag” might have come after footprints, but in this case one seems to have taken place over the other)

    at the end of the day I would be more inclined to limit this to an American Crow, perhaps alighting to gather a tidbit of food dropped by another, or in seeking a quick forage in a promising patch on the lawn- I’ve seen many a crow in England flap around a little on snow, do what they alighted to do, and then leave an exit imprint after a few moments as they continue their journey…

  28. #28 psweet
    January 29, 2010

    Or perhaps Northwestern Crow, David?

  29. #29 David Hilmy
    January 29, 2010

    Yes indeed, Paul, good call!

    Northwestern Crow Range Map

  30. #30 blf
    January 31, 2010

    A Phoenix that failed to ignite. You can tell because the snow hasn’t melted.

  31. I’m Ben Bardill, the photographer of these photos. I’m not an birder or field scientist, so I apologize for the lack of tape measurements and non-expert bird knowledge. I will provide as many details about the area and photo as possible.

    I’ve uploaded another photo from a slightly different angle here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/isophetry/4315805749/in/set-72157623313727742/

    Circumstances of the photo: Taken at 7pm December 19, 2008. I arrived home around 5pm and either didn’t notice the markings on my lawn (since the Christmas lights weren’t on), or they weren’t present. When I went outside a few hours later, I noticed the markings and grabbed my camera. All of the photos are taken in the kneeling position.

    @darwinsdog: This bird alighted in the snow then took off again. If this was a prey strike, where are the tracks of the prey?
    Your observation is correct, there were no prey tracks in the snow anywhere on my lawn. Perhaps the prey (rodent?) was under snow.

    The overall imprint size was roughly 18″ – 24″ wide by 24″ – 32″ long, from my memory and looking at the photos again.