Mystery Bird: Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus

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[Mystery bird] Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus, photographed at Samish Flats, Skagit County, Washington State. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Marv Breece, 22 January 2008 [larger view].

Canon EOS 350D 1/1000s f/5.0 at 165.0mm iso400.

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

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

This bird's slight mistrust of humans bearing lenses provides an excellent opportunity to practice our "bottoms first" identification technique. We see a longish, clearly graduated tail, with blobby white tips to the blackish rectrices. We know from the twigs that this is neither a large nor an especially small bird, but the tail pattern narrows it down for us: I can't think of anything other than the "rufous-sided" towhees that fit this rear view. The rufous sides make the same suggestion, I suppose.

Let's keep moving forward. The tertials, those long feathers on the inside of the wing, have white slashes down their shafts, and there are a few -- not many -- white spots on the scapulars and mantle. The greater and median coverts (some of which seem to be missing) are boldly tipped white, too, but there is no square "handkerchief spot" at the base of the folded primaries.

It all adds up: this is a Spotted Towhee, a bird whose relationship with the eastern and southern "rufous-sided" towhees has been a vexed question ever since these western birds were first described. Vocally, they are markedly different; where Eastern Towhee sings its famous and musical "drink your tea," the various populations of Spotted Towhees utter a range of strangled chips and snarling trills, and their common call note, very different from the bright "chwink" of Easterns, is a catbird-like wheeze.

In a photo like this, we can go beyond species identification to talk about sex, age, and geographic origin. Both sexes of Spotted Towhee tend to be blackish, and some birds can be hard to distinguish in the field; the glossy black of this bird, though, makes me confident that it is a male. The absence of visible color contrasts between juvenile and adult secondary coverts -- molt limits -- ages it as an adult.

I don't know when this photo was taken, but if my eyes tell the truth about the missing secondary coverts, then this is a bird undergoing its prebasic molt, an event that takes place in Spotted Towhees in late summer. Critically, Spotted Towhees molt on the breeding grounds, so we know by definition that this is a member of the subspecies oregonus, Oregon Towhee, a diagnosis nicely supported by the greatly reduced white on this bird's scapulars and back and its non-gigantic feet.

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The red eye really makes this photo.

White at end of tail, dark black head, black back with white speckling, rufous flanks...Rufous-sided Towhee.

A favorite bird when taking kids on nature hikes. They are delighted when they hear this bird "say" 'drink your teeeeeeaa.'

Yeah, I think of this guy as a "Rufous-sided Towhee", too, since that what I learned him as back in the day. But at some point I had to start translating into newfangled nomenclature in my head, so I always stop myself and say, "oops; I mean _Spotted_ Towhee." A pretty shot of an adult male.

I see the Brown (oops; _California_) Towhee more often, but we've got the Spotted around where I live, too, and I always get a kick out of them.

Rufous Towhee aka Spotted Towhee.
Red eye, long tail,, rufous flanks and spotted wings.
When I owned a house in Western Marin Co. CA there were a lot of these guys at my feeders.

Spotted Towhee?? Ummm... news to me.

So I check the copyright dates on my "newest" field guides; yup, more than ten years old. (The oldest- 1966, my first field guide.)

So there's been a bunch of name changes while I wasn't looking, hasn't there?

Yeah; the A.O.U. giveth, the A.O.U. taketh away...

I used to get more upset about splitting and merging of species, since that had the potential to add or subtract birds from my life list. But since my late teens I've pretty much given up that particular obsession. These days it's more just a minor inconvenience to remind myself to use the right name.

Sometimes the name changes will bother me on a deeper level for some reason; "Rufous-sided" vs. "Spotted" or "Brown" vs. "California" don't really bother me, but on some level it definitely made me unhappy to have "White-tailed Kite" become "Black-shouldered Kite". I'm not sure why that one bugged me so much, but it did. Then, years later, huzzah! they changed it back again, and all was right with my world. :-)

These birds are common where I live, so I had no problem with the ID--I think. Devorah Bennu said at Birdchat that this bird was "tricky in an unexpected way". I have no idea what that could be.

By Jerry Friedman (not verified) on 10 Dec 2008 #permalink

John C. @ 5

I don't like having to get new field guides because mine are full of notes.

My life list, I don't care about the total count. When I field I.D. a new species, I note in the guide the date, location, and who I was with. It's a great way to recall memories of fun outings and trips.

Perhaps Devorah was getting at naming the race of Spotted Towhee. The comparatively lesser amount of white speckling on the back and wings, plus the location in Washington State, suggests the oregonus race.

By Chris Van Beveren (not verified) on 10 Dec 2008 #permalink

Ummm... I was thinking along the lines of an updated field guide...

Ha, just kidding. I'll bookmark all this stuff and review it for the NEXT SIX MONTHS TO A YEAR!!

Thanks Rick. I know about the AOU, but the clements checklist is news to me. I'll "check" it out.