Summer Birding Puzzles

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by Pat Jaquith

Molting Juvenile 8.17.22

What are those beautiful birds feeding on the shiny red berries of roadside shrubs? They are the size of adult birds, but they don’t resemble any I can think of!

7.13.22 Mystery bird at Baney Lake

Spring birding is an exciting time when birds are feathered in their finest colors, singing their most distinctive calls! Even for novice birders, it’s pretty easy to flip the pages of a bird guide and find a picture of a bird that resembles the one you are seeing. Then the birds get down to raising their young, and those bird guides seem less helpful. Here are some of the puzzles I have encountered while eavesdropping on the lives of our feathered neighbors.

Through eons of evolution, birds’ appearance has evolved as the most successful nesters have survived and passed along their genes. Male birds are usually the flamboyant ones. They win their mates with attractive colors and distinctive calls. The female, the egg producer and typically the brooder that sits on the nest for weeks, succeeds in her role of producing the next generation by blending in with the environment and not attracting predators. The naked hatchlings are very vulnerable as they sit in the nest and vocalize to encourage their parents to deliver food. In about 3 weeks, they grow feathers for protection and wing feathers that will help them fledge and last until the first molt. According to Audubon, the Juvenile stage starts right after the fledgling leaves the nest and lasts until it has all of its true feathers. It’s the only time a bird grows all new feathers at the same time. So: they have wing feathers that will take them through the first winter. The rest of the summer while they are replacing those temporary body feathers, they start making public appearances in their rapidly changing plumage and cause so many identity questions.

Regarding the mystery birds in the header: The birds with black and white spots are juvenile European Starlings. The second photo features a juvenile Yellow-headed Blackbird at Baney Lake. It was still begging food deliveries; I watched an adult male Yellow-headed Blackbird deliver a moth to this young bird.

Western Bluebirds usually appear in my yard in August. The juvenile birds are strong fliers with colorful wings and tails similar to the adults, but they are still dependent on the parents for some food deliveries, and their true feathers have not fully developed on their backs and breasts. Note the bright yellow gape that still gives the parent a good target for inserting food!

Robins often have more than one brood each summer. There are juvenile Robins with speckled breasts around from July to September. The robin at left started with a nearly white breast covered with small round black dots. Note the bright yellow spot at the corner of its beak: the gape flange will darken and harden with age. The robin at right was one from a brood that was still being fed in its nest on 8.03. It grew up right outside my window, so I was able to observe its transformation frequently.

These American Coots were on Cliff Lake in the Pig Farms (DNRC lands) in different years. The chicks in the left picture were with a parent, making identification easy. Identifying the juvenile at right was a bit more challenging!

It’s hard to imagine the speckled little Hooded Mergansers warming in the sun will grow up to look like the breeding female on the right!

The juvenile Hairy Woodpecker has a rusty-red cap in the same position a Three-toed woodpecker wears its yellow cap. Because of the unique patch on the top of the head, I was tempted to think it was a variation of the Three-toed. I first saw it on a tree with an adult Downy Woodpecker, so I was able to compare the size of the bill and body. I watched it drop down to the puddle where I got this photo.

The juvenile female Northern Harrier has the white patch at the base of the tail and the owl-like light feathers around its face that adult birds do; the rusty-red breast feathers are the characteristic that identifies them as juvenile. Its eyes will change to lemon yellow by the next year.


A great racket of a group of Black billed Magpies in a Ponderosa Pine tree grabbed my attention, so I went to investigate. Six juveniles, about to fledge, were walking on the branches, hopping to another, and clambering around, but never attempting to fly. These juveniles had the characteristic black and white feathers, but the black upper breast feathers weren’t as rounded; the black wasn’t as shiny as adult birds. What really stood out were the red “gape flange” at the edges of the bill and the blue eyes. Their tail feathers were stubby, not the long, sweeping feathers of an adult.


As I came to the top of a hill in Pig Farm, the Townsend’s Solitaire’s striking white eye-ring identified this curious, bold juvenile. I found a log to sit on nearby, rummaged through my backpack for a snack and water, and shared my break time with this lovely bird with the breast and head of a woolly sheep.


I’m still puzzled! I see the yellow gape flange at the corner of the beak, so I know it’s a juvenile. The beak shape looks like that of a Sparrow. I know that the wing and tail are probably going to be with it for several months, so there’s likely some adult resemblance. The trace of an eye ring may be like the adult it will become. This picture was taken on the bank overlooking Cliff Lake. I will have to go back next spring and see if I can find some Sparrow species. BUT I’d be delighted if someone can help me out before then!!

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